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Category: mother and son

when summer comes easy: things i wish i’d known

i was watching butter melt into a bath of milk and sugar and cinnamon when it dawned on me: there is something about this summer that there’s never been before. and it’s not just that the kid i love so much is leaving in less than 60 days, though that’s the thing that’s somehow at the root of it all.

watching butter pool across milk, apparently, is a stirring prompt for early-morning philosophizing, for checking one’s soul, and seizing a revelation or two. what i realized, as i whipped up blueberry bread pudding on a wednesday, no less, whipped it up simply because the kid i love loves bread pudding, loves it best in summer when the season’s rotund little berries the color of night are tossed in with abandon, is that somehow this summer’s defining watch word is easy, as in stripped of all the junk — my junk — that usually gets in the way.

easy as in not worrying. not worrying about the clock, or deadlines, or whether he’s home at the stroke of midnight or half an hour later. easy as in surrendering to the whims of the day, plopping onto the couch, finding his hand at the end of my fingers, wrapping mine around his, and then simply sitting there for enough innings to figure out who’s playing who, and who might be ahead, all the while weaving in the sorts of questions and curiosities that come in the lulls of lazy baseball.

i am, for this one short sweet summer, devoting my days and my nights to simply, softly, loving my kid. savoring every single thing about him. i am relishing as if there’s no tomorrow, because in some ways there isn’t. there really isn’t. except for the way tomorrow affords us the joy — the possibility — of trying all over again. each day another chance to love in the ways we hope and dream and know we can love.

i am, this short sweet summer, sinking deep and certainly into one and only one thing: mothering with all my heart. mothering without getting in my own worrisome way. (and truth truly be told, i’m mothering with all my heart because somewhere along the line it’s the one place in my life where i found my deepest wholest holiness, and i am not wanting to let that go…)

makes me think i sure wish i’d known to be this sort of mother at the other end of this equation, when i was just starting out, a quarter-century-plus ago. i remember how, back in the daze of a newborn living, breathing, squalling, hungry-like-clockwork baby, i armed myself with charts — breastfeeding charts and safety pins moved from bra strap to bra strap, my highly-evolved method for tracking which breast for how long, at what intervals — seeking solace in sharp-angled grids and penciled-in numbers. i steeled myself against the uncertainties and vicissitudes of toddlerhood by worrying about whether we were five minutes late to dump ourselves into the station wagon for the short drive to nursery school — as if someone at the schoolhouse door was doling out demerits — for the mothers who failed to make it on time. the soundtrack of my life was worry upon worry upon worry. no wonder firstborns wind up so crazily cross-wired.

i wish, some time before this very last summer of my very last kid (i know there are only two, and the way i phrase it it sounds like there’ve been a good half dozen), in these countdown weeks before he hauls off to college, i wish i’d realized how lovely it is to be, well, carefree. or as close as i’ll ever come, anyway. (someone once told me i was calm like a swan and after thinking, oh, honey, you sure don’t know me, i shot back, “yea, smooth on the surface, but paddling like heck underneath.”)

truth is, the credit for this newfound way of lazy-being goes to the kid himself. he’s intent on one thing this summer: savoring each and every hour of each and every day. savoring it even when he’s flipping burgers and shaking the baskets of fries for long hours at the short-order grill where he picks up a paycheck. savoring the nights with his toes buried in sand, the moon overhead, and the blankets around him filled with his gaggle of friends. savoring the long drives and deep conversations, the kinds best unspooled from behind the wheel, when two or three pile into the old sedan and clock miles up and down the leafy winding road that hugs the shoreline here in chicago. plopping himself on the bench where i sit at the kitchen table, stretching out his long-and-getting-longer legs, and idly clicking his phone while shooting me the occasional question. his mantra: gotta make the most of this. gotta love this summer.

and so i take my cues from the master. delighted to be tutored in the fine points of taking it slow. in savoring. in tossing aside the occasional heart-jabbing worry.

i am finding the succulence of summer. the succulence of mothering at its juiciest essence. i am letting the soft breeze blow across my bare toes. tossing out the to-do lists and time clocks. and making bread pudding on any old wednesday.

i am learning to summer — to mother — on the very last page of the chapter that ends just before one of us shoves off to college. if only i’d known all along.

how did you learn to savor — be it a season, or simply an hour? or is it something you’re still trying to learn? who have been your most unforgettable teachers, and what are the lessons they’ve taught?

p.s. because i didn’t want it to get lost in the shuffle, i posted yesterday (a rare thursday post) my latest chicago tribune review of a book for the soul, in this case, the glorious christine valters paintner’s dreaming of stones: poems, a glorious volume of which i wrote (in part): “Paintner is fluent in the lush language of earth and sky as well as the otherworldly, the mysterious beyond. Born and raised in New York City, she is old-soul Celtic, through and through. Her poems rise out of the monastic practice of dwelling in silence, and hers, often, is a churchless god. A god who can’t — and won’t — be confined. A god who belongs to any and all.” 

prayer for comings and goings

gyroscope

gy·ro·scope  /’jira-skop/  n. a device used to provide stability or maintain a fixed direction, consisting of a wheel or disk spinning rapidly about an axis that is free to alter in direction. a device for measuring or maintaining orientation and angular velocity. it is a spinning wheel or disc in which the axis of rotation is free to assume any orientation by itself.

“device for maintaining orientation.”

sometimes i think my job is to be the human gyroscope. to keep it all straight. to keep all afloat. at speeds all their own. above all: to maintain orientation.

sometimes, even my own.

today is one of those days when the gyroscope in me is working overtime. before i was even awake i was tracing the map in my head of where people i love — children i love — are scattering today. one is climbing into a van with a van full of friends and a summer’s worth of clothes and rolling from new haven, to new york, to washington, to the rolling hills of virginia, then back to d.c. for a long, hard summer playing like a tv lawyer.

yet another of my kids (there are only two, lest i make it sound as if there are dozens and dozens) is marching into his last friday of high school. then he and the little flock i’ve come to love (as if my own), they are scattering like pool balls all across the country: wisconsin, new york, indiana, michigan, ohio, and, yes, illinois. (how apt that the heartland is draped in these particular boys, a heart-filled flock if ever there was.)

years back, when my firstborn headed off to massachusetts, and i stayed behind in sweet chicago, i got my first taste of this re-mapping that mamas do. i imprinted the hills of western massachusetts, pioneer valley, into my imagination. i knew the streets and inclines he loped day after day. and as i’d talk to him, the pictures in my head traveled along. on days when i wasn’t talking to him, i imagined where he trekked. you learn, when you’re someone who loves faraway, how to plunk yourself far far from where you dwell. the size of the space inside your head, it reaches as far as it needs to stretch. adds a live pulsing dot onto the map of the globe. you find yourself scanning the news for hot spots near any one of your very own dots. but mostly, you unreel a whole new reel of picture shows, one for each faraway someone you love.

i woke up this morning wanting more than anything to do like i’d always done when they were little, and we were about to go on a road trip. we’d pile into the wagon, check all the seatbelts, shuffle the water jug away from their feet, be sure the snack bag was reachable. then, before i shifted the car into reverse, we all paused, bowed our heads and muttered the mixed-up prayer that was our own: “holy garden angels protect us.” (one of us once dropped a syllable in guardian and it’s stuck ever since.)

this morning my prayer would be a bit more complex. it’s been nuanced over the years, textured with shadow, with depth and, yes, patches of darkness. the pleadings are at once as unfettered as ever — please let us land safe and whole wherever it is we’ve set out to go — and far more intricate, taking into account the particular inclines and tight mountain passages that come when the journeys are of the real-world, unchaperoned, higher-altitude ilk.

my instinct — no matter how far from home the journey begins — is always to reach toward the ones i so love, spread my arms and my safe-keeping prayers across and around them. i picture the prayer shawl, the one we draped over their shoulders the day they first chanted the Torah, the one we’ve pulled off the shelf for each of their blessings. all these years and journeys later, it’s the sacred cloth i yearn to lay on their shoulders, to wrap round their backs, as they bow their sweet heads, and my job — my holiest job — is to anoint them with my prayers. and my love.

dear holy God, God of adventure and challenge, God of steep inclines and precipitous drops, dear God, steady their footfall. soften the blows. dial up the everyday triumphs and occasional joys. most of all, bring them home, safe and sound and whole. and, yes, steady me, as i try my hardest to maintain orientation. no matter what comes.

amen. and with love.

what’s your prayer for comings and goings? 

cherish: these are the days i’ll forever miss

TK _ WK hug

something like feathery-flaked fairy dust — just a pinch, mind you — has descended on these days. there’s a palpable sense that we are living in hallowed time, on the permeable cusp of still holding on, but soon letting go. of liminal space, of a threshold when all the now is magnified, each fine grain of holiness amplified by the undercurrent of knowing these hours are numbered, this proximity will slip away.

cherish is the word that rumbles round my head — and my heart. it’s the sacred instruction whose imperative i follow.

fourth quarter senior year of high school started just the other day. for the kid born when i was barreling toward 45. for the kid i never ever ever thought i’d get to cradle, to fold in my arms. for the dream i feared i’d lose when his delivery got bumpy and a phalanx of top-notch neonatologists slithered into the murky shadows of the delivery room.

you never get over a miracle. i know i won’t.

even on the days when we’re nearly late for school because he won’t budge from under his covers — and what a miracle that that’s about the worst i can come up with — i never really lose touch with the blessedness of his existence.

truth be told, i get the sense that he too has an inkling of what’s coming, and he too is holding on just a wee bit tighter. even though for months now he’s teased me mercilessly about the fact that his days here are counting down.

in the last couple weeks, word has descended from college admissions offices far and wide and even close to home. friend after friend has decided, declared, committed. the boy we call our own, he is still deciding. we’re making one last trek to a couple campuses this weekend. taking one close look, and hopefully driving home knowing (although rain and more rain is in the forecast, which makes for dreary looking). maybe seeing a bit more clearly the outlines of what lies ahead.

but even without his own certainty yet, it’s the certainty of kids all around him that’s seeping in the sharp edge of truth: high school, this era he thought would never end, it’s over, done, finished, just the other side of this quarter that started this week. it’s a two-digit countdown if counting by days; it’s now less than two months away.

all of which dials up the urge to pay close attention. to savor. to cherish.

which makes this all the more, the tender season. there’s always something about springtime that pulses with a certain poignance. i always feel the equal parts light and shadow in these weeks of quickening. there’s hallelujah, there’s heartbreak, there’s loss, there’s triumph. there’s death and resurrection. nubs of newborn green at the end of the branch. mama bird in her nest-building frenzy. baby bird fallen from the nest. tender shoots bent under the crush of late-season ice or snow. the bush that didn’t survive the winter. the bulb that rises anyway. the fragile frond unfurling. the song of the wren.

i’ve written (here, and in the pages of slowing time) of the enlightened wisdom of the japanese who teach that the beauty of the cherry blossom — sentinel of spring — is its evanescence. “the very fact that at any minute a breeze might blow and blossoms will be scattered. they’re keen to what it’s teaching: behold the blossom. it won’t last for long.” nor forever.

nor these numbered days of childhood, the chapters that all unfold beneath one shared roof. the chapters where, night after night, you can perk your ears to the sounds of someone shuffling off to bed. those long-ago nights of bedtime stories and lying still beside him, in hopes that sleep would come to him before it came to whichever grownup had drawn the short straw that night, those nights are now but memory. the ritual these days is to listen for the click of the front door somewhere round the midnight hour. and not too long from now there will be no noise at midnight, nothing but the sound of a single sheet being pulled up round our noses. his room, the one at the bend in the stairs, it’ll lie untouched, un-messed-up for long weeks and months between college breaks. i’ll wander in, run my hand across the un-hollowed pillow. maybe sift through piles left behind. i’ll wonder how we got to such an empty room so fast…

i will hardly be surprised by the hollowness of those days to come. the ones where i work once again to re-wire who i am in the world. once again expand the imaginary boundaries of my mother-ness, expand to include however many miles stretch between me and my newly-faraway boy.

what’s surprising me is how tender these days are. how a softness has descended. an unspoken tenderness between us. how he calls out one last time “i love you,” before clicking shut his bedroom door, or as he climbs the stairs on his way toward homework. these are not the words he tosses willy-nilly. these are words that seem to be gurgling up from the undeniable truth that he and i have always, always sensed that we were living inside an answered prayer. and despite his disinclination to say so, he’s the bearer of one voluminous and deeply tender heart. and it’s feeling this tug in the surest quietest way imaginable.

i’ve been reading — in a glorious book titled, “the soul’s slow ripening,” by christine valters paintner, a poet, artist, and modern-day mystic now living in galway, on the western coast of ireland — that thresholds held particular attention for ancient irish monks.

“thresholds are the space between,” paintner writes, “when we move from one time to another, as in the threshold of dawn to day or of dusk to dark; one space to another, as in times of inner or outer journeying or pilgrimage; and one awareness to another, as in times when our old structures fall away and we begin to build anew. the celts describe thresholds as ‘thin times or places’ where heaven and earth are closer together and the veil between worlds is thin.”

(i love learning that the monks literally sought out “edge places,” in the desert, on the margins of civilization, in the wide-open windswept burren, “at the very fringes of the ancient world,” where they might most deeply embrace the perspective it allowed them.)

it makes me scan the terrain of this “edge time” i find myself — and my sweet boy — living in. it makes me wonder if the pinch of fairy dust, the extra-porous tenderness, the gentle grace that animates each day, as my senior in high school holds on tighter as he gets ready to let go, it makes me wonder if we’re wise to pay attention to the “thinning,” and recognize the holiness of heaven intermingling in the everyday earthliness of this very last high school chapter?

it makes me wonder. and it makes me hold tighter to each and every hour of this blessed thinning time and space…

what thresholds capture your attention? have you a sense of the thin place, where heaven and earth hover within reach? 

we always pause for seaweed: on savoring a day, another year

seaweed salad

maybe it’s because he’s about to leave. maybe it’s because the moving van is scheduled, the boxes piling in a room upstairs.

maybe, though, it’s simply that he wanted to be here, to be among us. an arc of days stitched with all those things he loves.

and so we paused. turned off all the things that ping and beep. clipped roses from the garden. tucked stems in vases. made cards, wrote letters. awaited word from inbound trains.

the birthday boy was coming home, and we were slowing time. we were holding up the hours, sinking deep into the pure and simple gift of being side-by-side.

love is like that. love needs little embellishment. time — hours upon hours stacked together, in one fell swoop — that’s plenty. that’s priceless.

once or twice i heard a whisper from somewhere just beyond my shoulder, or deep inside my head: “he’s turning 24, for heaven’s sake. the clock on this has well run out.” but then i heard another voice, the voice of my heart, and i surrendered. wholly. that voice is the one that will always, always win for me. it said: “doesn’t matter to me how old he is. savoring the day with him will always be the dearest gift of my whole life.”

and so it was. i plucked him from the train, we grabbed a sack of sushi and seaweed salad. always seaweed salad on the first full day of summer, because long ago, in 1993, on the eve of his birth, an obstetrician i loved determined that seaweed applied in particular ways precipitated labor. got things opening, as it were.

we’ve celebrated seaweed ever since.

birthday eve dinner

birthday eve seaweed + sushi

we must have sat for hours at that after-soccer feast, night before last. i know the moon and stars were out before we got up from the table, before we moved deeper into birthday countdown.

there is nothing so fine as falling asleep in a house where every bed is filled. where the sounds of doors closing, sheets being thrown off, odd faucets shushing in unfamiliar rhythms, is lullaby to sleep.

nor is there much finer than tiptoeing down the stairs in the morning, setting the birthday table. opening cards and letters that make you weep as one brother tells the other that he will always be his hero. you can hear the clock ticking toward the day the birthday boy moves away. and so, you hold time, you hold all that fills these hours, as fully and preciously as you know how. you glide through a day savoring. sinking wholly into what’s before you, all around you. you know that soon the distance once again will come. the miles and miles between you. the necessity of phone line. the certainty that law school and life will make these sorts of days just that much more out of reach.

by nightfall, savoring had pulled me in so deeply that i was on a stool reaching to a shelf in the hall closet. i hauled down the old, old, vintage video recorder. i started popping in old tapes. i was mesmerized. i watched my firstborn on his first birthday, not yet walking, barely saying words. i watched my firstborn on his second birthday, all skinny legs and long arms, reaching for a train. calling the train by name. informing all who listened — and we all always listened, believe me — all there was to know about each and every train.

willie yawntalk about binge watching. i could play and replay those tapes from now till law school graduation, i suppose. i ached that i hadn’t been a more committed recorder of the hours. wished i’d spent even one slice of time silently positioning the lens on one ordinary day in the life of that blessed child — not simply the cacophony of a birthday celebration, when so much noise got in the way. wishing perhaps that i could leap back in time, live it once again. inhale more wholly this time the miracle of being mother to this blessed child, who has taken my breath away since the day he was born. and who now, on the cusp of his departure, his moving east, 1,000 miles from where i spend my days, still takes my breath away, still puts the pit-a-pat in my heart that once beat in time with his.

willie shoulder

love you, beautiful will. bless you, today, tomorrow, ever…

an unabashed love note to be sure. i will never run out of words, trying to capture this particular love. it’s the moment that struck me most this week. he leaves any hour now, to catch a train to new mexico, then a plane to martha’s vineyard, then we will all pile in the red wagon and follow the moving van to connecticut, where he’ll move in to his new address. and we’ll drive home, just the three of us, leaving him behind to absorb the law. i’m thinking this move out east will be the one from which there’ll never be a return to the heartland. we’ve trod this ground before, when he went off to college, and i had to learn long-distance. i will do so again. and maybe some day, we’ll be the ones who move — closer to his every day, and the every day of his little brother. i know plenty of you live far from the ones you love. i know distance isn’t measured only in miles. and i’m blessed (beyond measure) that there is no distance in our hearts. 

and with seaweed salad in mind, what are the quirky ways you mark birthdays at your house? 

 

boxing up the bookshelf

img_8284

this is an early draft of a meandering i wrote in the fall of 2016, one that became an essay, Boyhood on a Shelf, that ran, blessedly, in the new york times book review on april 9, 2017. it’s escaped in draft form a couple times already (only for a flash of a moment before i nabbed it and lassoed it back here, where it’s been dawdling), and this time, i’m letting it go because the idea of curating a collection of timeless children’s books is one i believe in, and because i’d love to hear what titles you’d include in such a library. 

one by one, i ran my index finger along the spines of the books. one by one, i remembered. one by one, i slipped the books off the shelf and into the hollow moving box, the books of a boyhood slipping away.

the titles — the hobbit, tom sawyer, the cricket in times square, my father’s dragon, the tales of narnia, a boxed set, harry potter and the sorcerer’s stone, the phantom tollbooth — one by one, each sent a volt of varied wattage.

the american boy’s handy book, for instance, daniel beard’s 1882 instructional for boyhood, “a state of natural savagery,” with its directions on how to build a pine-branch house or a birch-bark canoe, with its instructions on fishing for fresh-water clams, constructing a miniature boomerang or a wooden water telescope, or simply extolling the novelties in soap bubbles, it began to wobble my knees. i remembered the day i’d first spied the centennial edition at a beloved bookshop and carried it home, intent on giving my boy the most old-fashioned life of adventure, and a sure guide to survival as well.

my father’s dragon, the mid-20th-century trilogy of dragon stories from ruth stiles gannett, it had me in tears. as soon as the pillowy pad of my fingertip rubbed against its worn-smooth spine, i was flung back in time, wedged bum-to-bum on the bedsheets, snug against my then-beginning-to-read firstborn in his four-poster bed. turning pages, taking turns turning the pages, his eager fingers pinching the page’s corner, my lazy hand patiently waiting. the bedtimes when words began to take form, when pen-and-ink illustrations were seared into memory, collective memory, his and mine, at once distinct and enmeshed. the bedtimes that colored so many dreams, storybook dreams.

i couldn’t bear to let them all go, so deeply ingrained they were with a life i had loved, a life passage now being tucked in a box, transported miles away, and slid onto a grown man’s bookshelf, alongside tomes on law and philosophy and literature, subjects he now trades in, now is schooled in, subjects that now plot his trajectory.

and as much as i ached to ease them off the shelf, i was heartened to know — deeply — that they mattered to him. that he wouldn’t be home, wouldn’t feel home, till his books — his whole lifetime of books — were tucked on the new shelves in the new place he calls home.

that’s what the books of a childhood, of a boyhood, do: they forever bind us. and, ever after, they take us back, separate and together. they return us to long-ago, to once upon a time.

of all the playthings of my children’s childhood, it’s the books where we shared the most time. trains, my firstborn played with often alone, me off in a corner, occasionally lending a guttural chug or a choo or a whistle, or, later, when he was old enough to imagine all by himself, i’d be down the stairs and around a few bends, rattling around in the kitchen.

but the books, the books were where we nestled, where we sank in deep together. the books are where our hearts did so very much of their stitching together.

and so, the pages of the books — the pictures, the covers, the crinkled dog-eared edges — those are the relics, sacred relics of the years when i was keeping my promise to open his heart, to infuse the beautiful, the gentle, the wise. and the books were my guideposts, my road marks.

the books of my little boys’ beginnings, they were the holy scripture that whispered the lessons i prayed they would learn: ferdinand, the gentle bull? be kind. be not afraid to march to your own music. harry potter? believe in magic. the tales of narnia? defend what is good. tom sawyer? roam and roam widely. and never mind if you tumble into a slight bit of mischief.

no wonder, of all the stacks of clothes, the contents of a desk drawer, and all the other shelves of books, the only one that made me wince, the only one i thought i wouldn’t be able to pack away, to let go, to watch glide out the door and into the glimmering downtown tower that now is home to my firstborn, the only one that stopped me in my tracks was the shelf of my firstborn’s boyhood.

not one to sulk for too too long — only after brushing away the tears i kept to myself — i hatched a plan: as one taketh away, so one receives. as i slapped the long serpentine wrap of packing tape across the top of the book box, i promised myself i’d build a new library, one built on the blueprints of children’s librarians who’ve culled lists of the best of the best. the new york public library’s 100 great children’s books. my little town’s own librarians’ roster of classic picture books, and classic novels, grades 2 through 5, and 5 through 8.

i’d make it my mission, my task of enchantment, to map the quaintest of used book shops. i’d scour the shelves for a particular roster of titles. and, one by one, i’d re-build a collection, a curated collection of children’s books that stand the test of time and, most of all, heart.

in the hours of my heart’s tugging, when the boy i love was moving away for good and likely forever, the one balm i knew to apply was the balm of the bookshelf, the balm of construction, of building, amid the act of dismantling, of packing up and moving away.

it’s not an assignment that comes with a deadline. it took years — and the accumulated wisdom of countless bibliophiles who, over those years, slipped titles into my hands with a knowing nod, or the question, “have you seen this one?” — to build that shelf in the first place.

and it will take years, and the deep joy of engagement, to build the one i’ll bequeath to both my boys, and whoever might be the next little readers to come toddling along.

what titles would you be sure to include if you were building the essential children’s bookshelf?img_8290

that one brave thing (an update)…

0409-BKS-CriticsTake-blog427

illustration by Antony Huchette, for the New York Times Book Review

just a quick middle-of-the-week update from the courage department…

not so very long ago, i wrote here about trying very, very hard to be brave.

these are some of the words that tumbled straight from my truth-telling heart:

i forget sometimes that i can be brave.

i sometimes think the countervailing forces of the world — the ones that whisper to me that i’m not good enough, don’t belong, won’t pass muster — they’ll knock me down. buckle me at the knees.

…i sometimes think of myself as a chicken. a wimp of the first order. i keep watch on folks who look to be brave, and wonder, “how, oh, how do they do that?” here’s a secret: sometimes when i talk to them, when we both unfold our hearts, i find out that they’re just as scared as i am, but they shush away those nasty whispers. or march headlong into them, never minding the awful bluster.

of course i have to remind myself — over and over and over — of that little truth. that the courage to face fears is sometimes simply plugging your ears to the noise, and deciding to hum your own little courage tune.

and just in case, i’ve come up with a back-up plan, or maybe it’s a fortifying plan. it’s modeled off the vitamins of my youth. it’s the one-a-day plan. one brave thing each day. that’s it.

i understand deeply that the trail up the mountainside comes one footstep at a time. no one’s taking giant leaps for womankind. they’re taking normal human strides, one foot in front of the other, and suddenly they’re at a point that’s halfway up. or nearly at the top.

it’s the one-brave-thing plan. i muster as much courage as it takes for one bold move — sending off the email that makes me quiver in my clogs. making the scary phone call before my voice gets caught in my throat. taking five deep breaths then plunging in.

here’s what happened the day i took a deep breath, and mustered all my courage:

Boyhood on a Shelf, April 9, 2017, New York Times Book Review, page 13.

thank you, and thank you, dear mother courage.

i’ll be back, as always, friday morning. it’ll be hushed because, for me, it’s Good Friday, that day of sacred silence from noon till three bells, the hours of the Crucifixion.

delighted to hear if your courage took you to any heights of which you’d only dreamed….

 

pulled by heart

lunch

the hour hand had just nudged itself past 5. the tableau out the window was black-on-black. the bedsheets, warm, toasty warm. the soft folds of the flannel, pulled snug against my shoulders, invited one last episode of sleep. all i wanted was one more hour. but then i remembered.

the light down the hall was already splintered through the crack under the door. the soft bells of an alarm were faintly chiming. the whoosh of the shower broke the pre-dawn hush of a house just beginning to rouse. i knew my firstborn was up and getting dressed. i knew he’d soon be barreling into the morning’s bitter cold. the headlights of his little black car would shine down the alley, turn toward the city, to the west side, to the streets where just a week ago a bullet pierced the window of the pre-K classroom in the school where he teaches. the bullet shattered glass. sailed across the room, ramrodded a metal pipe, ricocheted. hit no one. thank God. but the cluster of little 4-year-olds, who by the grace of God had been clustered at that instant on the far side of the classroom, away from the bank of sidewalk-level windows, they heard the blast, the ping, and at last the thud of the bullet dropping to the classroom’s hard tile floor. deadly sounds. sounds that shouldn’t be heard in a pre-K classroom. or any classroom anywhere.

a week ago, at 2:46 p.m., i got this text from my firstborn:

There’s been a shooting outside school. We are in lockdown, but I am okay, so are my students. Do not call, I don’t want there to be any noise in my room.

a mother’s heart all but stops when she reads those words.

it would be another hour till he called, till i heard the rush of air i knew as his voice. it was over now, he told me.

the children had all been shepherded into the hands of parents. or grandparents. or some adult who’d get them home. he, too, was headed home, he told me. shaken, so shaken by the news of what happened in the pre-K. shaken by the holes in the metal screen and the pane of glass. shaken by the glass that shattered in what looked like a cobweb of shards. shaken by the long hour’s lockdown, not knowing the whole time — as he tried to keep his sixth graders quiet — whether the shooter was inside or out of the building. shaken by footsteps that ran down the hall, toward his classroom, where the door had been locked. shaken by the news that a mother who’d come to school early to take home her young child had stepped out the school’s front door into the direct line of two men with guns chasing down the sidewalk, shooting. the mother threw her little one to the sidewalk, then threw herself — hard — on top. she waited, she’d told a teacher, lay stone still, not knowing if she’d be hit. fully expecting the thud of a bullet to her back. or worse.

monday, my kid came home with word that 46 kids of 180 kids hadn’t come to school that day. parents kept them home. they’re not used to bullets piercing classroom windows. not even on the west side of chicago. he said, too, that the only two white kids in the school, kids whose parents teach there, they’d been pulled. “a social experiment they weren’t willing to risk any longer,” was how he put it.

and then he said, “mom, if i tell you something, promise not to freak out.”

ooo-kay.

“there’s apparently a turf war in the neighborhood, and (school) is in the middle of it.”

and so as you hear those words, as they barely begin to settle onto your eardrums, onto your heart, you somersault into prayer. your every inhale breathes in prayer. your exhale begins the next, an endless loop of prayer after prayer.

you settle yourself down, slowly. over the course of hours, as you turn round and round the heartache, the insanity of it all, as you sift through the shards, examine from all angles. imagine the worst. consider the kids who call those streets home. who can’t leave.

you pray mightily.

and then, yesterday on the front page of the newspaper, there was a story with eery echoes. it was a story that happened last friday, just five hours after the bullet shattered the window of my kid’s school. it happened three miles due south. a bullet — out of nowhere — pierced the driver’s side window of a parked car where a young 25-year-old woman was sitting, talking on her cellphone to her dad in san diego. suddenly, he told the reporters who had called him, she started to say her head hurt, her head hurt. then the phone went dead. the dad in san diego couldn’t figure out what happened. frantic, he called his daughter’s boyfriend, who called her roommate, who ran out onto the street and down the block where she found the woman slumped, near dead. the woman died from a bullet that “came out of nowhere;” two men chasing down the street with guns. the stray bullet — a bullet not meant for her — killed her.

as i sat there reading the news story, tracing the lines that connected her story to the one i knew from my own kid’s school — same day, same short span of hours, same damn  scenario, guns and chasing and flying bullets — i shuddered at the tragedy, shuddered for the father who now told the story, who now tried to explain how — as she sat in her car on her quiet street on her way home from a job where she’d just gotten a promotion, in a city she loved and had moved to after college — he was now burying his daughter, “the only one in her preschool class who could read, a straight-A high school student, a magna cum laude college graduate,” the father told the reporters.

and so this morning, knowing my kid was getting dressed to go back to the school where the pre-K window is now covered in plywood, while they wait for new glass to come, while they all pray for calm in the streets, i yanked back the sheets, and i planted my wobbly feet on the cold wood floor of my bedroom. i shuffled down the stairs, and i opened the fridge. i piled turkey on slabs of bread. i tossed in an apple. i poured a tall to-go cup of coffee.

not for one minute could i send my kid out into the cold, back to school, back to streets where a gang war wages, and not do the feeble things a mama does: i slathered mustard on bread, i folded slices of deli turkey, i tucked it all in the little brown bag he uses day after day. i prayed the whole while. i prayed mightily.

when he tumbled down the stairs, and saw me standing there with my mustard knife in hand, he looked surprised. “mommo, what are you doing here?”

just packing lunch, was all i said. he knows me well, my kid of 22 years. he knew without me saying so that that sandwich was super-packed. stacked with prayer upon prayer. besides the turkey.

as i closed the door behind him, as i told him i loved him, called out,”be safe,” i traced a sign of the cross onto the back of his thick winter coat. it’s all i could do.

it’s the truth of motherhood, or one of them anyway: we’re armed with so very little. especially when up against a world of flying, piercing, life-taking bullets.

yet we don’t abandon our station: we rise before the dawn, we shuffle down the stairs, we do what little we can. we pack a lunch, with a motherlode of prayer.

we are pulled by heart out of slumber. we are pulled by heart into prayer. deep into prayer.

what will we do? what can we do? is there any way out of this insanity that spills blood on the front seats of cars, on front porches, and playgrounds, and too many sidewalks and streets in this city?

tables turned…

ice puppet

since tuesday, i’ve had a fever. i’ve been achy all over, and moving slow as slow can be and still qualify as movement.

i’ve even taken to my mattress a couple afternoons, which — around here — is unheard of. but the most amazing thing unfolded one of those afternoons, the first one when i was stretched out and aching and hotter than hot. a young lad came to my bedside and insisted he was the fever fixer. he had a plan, he said, and he set out to execute.

from down the stairs and around the bend, i heard the klunk of ice cubes being procured. i heard the linen closet squeaking open. i heard the old metal tray being pulled from where we store those sorts of things. and then i heard the hobbling sound of my sweet boy — the one with one leg in a brace and one arm in a cast — i heard him climbing the stairs.

he appeared at my bedside on that hot july afternoon bearing a tray that held a dripping wet washcloth, a cup of ice chips and an apple tucked pertly in a white souffle cup. before i could say a word, he slipped his cast-less hand into the puppet of a washcloth, one of those terry-towel hand puppets meant to make bath time for little ones a theater of suds.

this particular washcloth, the one that was always his favorite, happens to be a hippo. so my bedside attendant stretched wide the hippo’s mouth, grabbed two cubes of ice, and proceeded to anoint my forehead in this icy, dripping bath. next, he reached for my wrists, and up and down my arms and legs. “you’ll be okay,” were the only words he whispered the whole long while. over and over, he repeated: “you’ll be okay,” as if the words alone were incantations, as if a prayer aloud.

a few minutes into this anointing of the sick, i finally mustered the breath to ask: “who taught you this?”

his answer: “you.”

i felt a tear roll down my cheek. it’s true, yes, that a wet washcloth applied to fevered brow has long been wielded here for curative effect. and ice chips in a cup, often dripped with honey, has long been an apothecary staple in this old house. but never in my life have i been as gentle, as determined, as tender as that boy was to me. the tenderness he learned from his papa. of that i’m certain. i, too, am learning tenderness — all these years later — from my sweet boy’s papa. it’s a lesson without end.

while the icy rinse didn’t make the fever go away, it decidedly worked wonders. for days now, my sweet boy has attended me with his hippo and his ice cubes. i asked him amid one of the icy rubdowns if he’d ever thought of being a doctor or a nurse, because he certainly had the healer’s touch. nope, said he, explaining, “i don’t like blood, and i’m not good at science.”

the marvel here is that we often think the long nights we’ve spent on bathroom floors with a retching or a fevered child, the midnight hours when we’re the ones knocking ice cubes from the freezer, we think of those, sometimes, as invisible hours, times that heed no notice. what we might not realize is that in that transactional moment, when ice practically sizzles on a fevered brow, when a kid who’s so sick he can barely open his droopy lids lets us slip an ice chip to his tongue, what we’re doing is so much more than knocking back a fever. we are quietly, and without folderol, teaching something sacred to the essence of being human. maybe fevers and flus were invented for the simple purpose of one someone being invited to try to heal another.

the marvel here — the reminder that came in dripping ice cubes this week — is that there is a life-and-death curriculum unfurling here in the quiet of our humdrum little lives. our whole life long we are teaching and learning that most magnificent of golden rules: love as you would be loved.

not a minute is wasted. not a lesson lost. little folk and big folk alike are paying attention, our hearts attuned to those gifts, those moments, that lift us, inch by inch, to a higher plane. we love, and so we are loved in kind.

i remembered this week that i am ever teaching, and lessons are ever being learned, even when i don’t think a single soul notices, nor pays attention. so i’d best try to live as tenderly, as full of heart, as my sweet child is teaching me to be.

that kid and his ice cubes, they more than did their job. in fact, they melted me. and my fever, too.

what lessons in kindness and tenderness have molded you, stretched you, carried you to a higher, sweeter plane?

final push

final push. will bam

it’s the promise i made, long long ago. the deepest surest promise i ever made.

before he was even a bump in my belly, before anyone in the world knew he was there. in the moment i first knew, i tumbled out these words: dear God, let me wrap this blessed life in a cocoon of pure, unbroken love. let me be the shield. let this child know only undiluted full-force light.

it wouldn’t be long till i found out how porous that cocoon might be. i couldn’t keep the 105-degree fevers from spiking. couldn’t even take away the sting of the shots he got at 2-months-old, when the nurse turned to me and icily offered: “what are you all nervous for?”

i surely couldn’t keep the chipmunk from darting before his bike’s front wheel on that autumn afternoon when he hurled across the handle bars, and landed in an unconscious heap on the side of the woodsy trail. couldn’t keep the bone from cracking in his neck, on that october day when he was all alone and all of 13. couldn’t keep the bone from cracking straight across his thigh just 10 months after that. nor stop the crushing commentary from the camp counselor who saw his staggered gait as reason for ridicule.

in the nearly 22 and a half years since i whispered that promise (i’d whispered it a full nine months before he was born), i’ve not veered, not lost my most determined grip.

there are rare few promises you make in life that define you. my promise to my firstborn was one.

and now, at the end of his senior year of college, in the final hours before he turns in the more than 150 pages he’s been typing, editing, eating-drinking-sleeping, i am once again putting muscle to my words. his senior thesis, a compendium of deep thinking and determined scholarship, will soon be walked into a white new england house, one with columns stretched across its porch. it’s the poli sci department, and the thesis, a probing examination of the intersection — and entanglement — of law and religion, is due in just five days. at 3 p.m., eastern time. (not that i’m watching the clock.)

i’ll not be breathing much this weekend. the thousand miles between us will, once again, have collapsed into the paper-thin space between two hearts that once beat just micrometers apart.

i’ve realized (because i tend to think that way) this might be the final push of all the school years — from preschool when i nervously watched him try to make a friend in the blocks corner, to third grade when he carried off to school the landmark chicago stadium he’d struggled to build out of cardboard, poster paint and glue (lots and lots of glue), to the junior year of high school with its tension-building, sleep-disrupting 20-page AP-english theme (oh, that seems so innocently succinct, now looking back from the distance of 150-plus footnoted pages), to the long-distance breath-holding as every college semester’s close brought with it a slate of deadlines and exams and will-he-make-it doubts, to now, the mountain climb of all type-written mountain climbs.

and so i’ll enter this final round of breath-holding, of leaping every time the phone rings, of literally falling asleep and awaking with that boy’s welfare on my mind, with all the mama-dedication it deserves.

the truest truth is that as i’ve reached out my hand to guide my boy up steep climbs, through narrow passageways, i’m the one who’s found my way. he’s plunged me into life in ways that, until he came along, i might have skirted. if i’ve lived my life one drop more deeply, more authentically, it’s because he was at my side. he was asking me — without words — to be the best of who i might be. to not flinch. to not be afraid. or even if i was, to walk forward anyway.

that’s what mamas do, after all. that’s the unspoken pact. it’s at the front line of whatever life hurls our child’s way, where we are truly put to the test. it doesn’t mean we’ll keep at bay the brokenness. it doesn’t mean we’ll stanch the tears. it means we’ll wear it all, as if our own. it means we’ll be there on the phone whispering, “i believe” till the cows come home. it means that when we’re dead asleep and the phone jangles us awake, we’ll take the call, shudder off the somnolence and stay on the line till daylight erases darkness.

in this latest round, it means we’ll read and re-read, check for misplaced commas, look up “constitution” in the world book encyclopedia, grasping to understand this free-exercise clause that seems to be absorbing so much of our kid’s attention.

if that’s what it takes. whatever it takes.

day after day, year upon year.

this is the one job for which there’s no check-out clock. our hours on the factory floor do not end.

oh, we might get long spells of reprieve, when all is humming along as you’d hope it would. but then, duty calls. stakes are high, and the fire bell clangs. so you leap into the nearest phone booth, and you whip on your mama cape. you toe the line. you’ve made a vow, and you’re sticking to it. you’re here for the long haul, and the long haul is now.

so much is stitched into every single saga. unspoken volumes. volumes that swell your heart. volumes that teach and re-teach just what it means to love as you would be loved.

it’s holy gospel, this mothering as mountain climb. he’s nearly there, the kid i love. i can see the summit, and so can he. i’ve one last weekend to stay the course. to promise him he’ll make it, and to let out a holy roar when, at last, he does.

bam will hand in hand

that’s me and my sweet boy, walking hand in hand, a long, long time ago. i nearly melt studying the snapshots, the one just above, and the one up high where you can practically feel my straining to implant some sort of mama inoculation on his irish-jewish cheek. it’s what we aim to do, aim most mightily: to embrace, protect, infuse with all that’s good, infuse with the best of what we’ve got and all we didn’t even know we had to offer. 

do you have a tale to tell about someone loving you across the finish line, no matter what the line? 

and happy blessed birthday to two of my life’s dearest oldest friends who today and tomorrow tack on another year. love you, divine miss M, and sweet sweet paula, angel of my dreams….

turning 21: a mother was born

willie baby with kiss

nothing had ever — has ever — so deeply captured my attention. you can see it in the gaze above, the eyes locked between mother and child. you can see it in the parted lips, my lips, can almost hear the gushing in of breath, of pure and utter undiluted amazement.

deep down, i think, i never really believed it would happen. had so little faith in my body — in the flesh and bones that made me who my vessel was — i gasped when they handed me that bundle. i so distinctly remember drinking in his eyes, whispering, “hullo, my sweet, so here i am, and here you are, answer to my deepest prayers, my dreams come true beginning now.” and then, before i could stop myself, i zeroed in on the thighs. the thighs i am blessed to report were duly “pudged,” rolls of flesh and perfect fat, a fat so deliciously dimpled it nearly melted me off the birthing bed.

i’d been afraid i might grow a baby without the requisite fat. in fact, i doubted my capacities as birthing chamber all along. in one long weekend, after an early set of ultrasounds, i convinced myself my baby had no brain. all you could see inside the skull was black space, blank black space. oh my god, i thought, they’ve not yet broken it to me, but i think my baby might be missing his brain. i even called a radiologist friend — on a sunday — to find out if he’d confirm my fear.

he confirmed it not.

and in fact, on the sultry start-of-summer tuesday when at last that babe was born, he was a whopping eight pounds, nine ounces — a good chunk of that birthweight duly tucked in the cranial cavity, where in the years since he’s proven how undeniably that brain was where it needed to be, doing precisely what it was wired to do.

my beautiful beautiful boy turns 21 on sunday, and while my letter to him will be deeply private, the one i’m writing here is the one in which i proclaim to anyone who pulls up a chair how very deeply his birth birthed the depths of me, allowed at last the core of who i dreamed i could be, who i prayed i could be, to begin to take form, to emerge in light and shadow, to rise from the gauzy netherworld, to be defined in sharp outline and tender spots, and to be forming still.

it just might be most every blessed mother’s story: we stumble upon the best that we can be, sometimes, when living, breathing, squawking, ever-hungry babe is cradled in our arms. our trembling arms, to be sure. our arms that grow stronger, surer, over all the sagas and the chapters and the countless hours of two lives entwined.

when i think back over the 21 years that he and i have been essential factors in each other’s equations, i stand in wide-eyed wonder. i bow down low in deepest gratitude. i wince at my mistakes, moments i’d give anything to do over. and i marvel at the times when i stepped to the edge of the precipice, mustered all my courage, and leapt — that eternal life-saving instinct nestled deep in every mother’s heart, the one that propels us to put form to whatever is the holy vow we take when we’re first told that life stirs within.

it’s unbreakable, the mother bond. it defines our days, puts order to our must-get-done list, sets us off to the ends of the earth, if need be, in search of the essential whatchamahoojie — be that the medical specialist who can peer inside a child’s shattered bone or merely the USB cable that’s gone missing from his laptop at the very hour the paper must be printed and turned in for a full semester’s credit.

and it keeps us awake, long night after long night.

we learn, once motherhood comes upon us, just how long we can go without so much as a spoonful of cereal (it took me a couple weeks to figure out how to inhale breakfast with a baby wailing in the infant seat), and how many consecutive nights we can curl up on the bathroom floor cradling a fevered child or one who’s upchucking till the wee wee hours.

when necessary, we discover we can make the scariest of phone calls, can dial up the mother of the slumber-party bully, can look the teacher in the eye and say, i’m sorry, i don’t think you understand my kid. we can even will our knees not to buckle when the ER doctors start tossing around words like “airlift” and “cervical fracture,” and “severed spinal cord.” we can make promises to God — ones we swear we’ll keep — when, for longer pauses than we ever thought we could endure, we’re begging to be spared a kid who can’t flinch a muscle from his neck down to his fingers and his toes.

in rare sweet moments, we find out how it feels to catch the wind and soar. we turn and see the kid we love dashing down the block to hand a crunched-up dollar bill to the homeless guy he knows by name. we nearly fall in the river as the kid who couldn’t catch a fly ball now rows mightily across the finish line. we read the words his college professors send to us in emails that knock us off our chairs, and leave one of us brushing away the streams of tears.

we hope, we dream, we pray. we reach down deep, deeper than we ever reached before. we listen till the birds of dawn begin to sing, if that’s what it takes some long dark hollow nights.

we find our voice along the years. we exercise our heart. we wrack our brains. we love, and love some more.

and suddenly 21 years have happened. countless picture frames loop before our eyes. words and stories bubble up and fill page upon page. our hearts are 21 times the size they used to be — at least.

we have paid most exquisite attention, to each and every breath and utterance all along the way. we’ve driven ourselves nearly mad. we’ve cared beyond reason. in fact, there’s little room for the rational when it comes to this particular brand of love story.

we were handed a treasure. we owe it to the treasure. we owe it to the bequeathers of the treasure.

i, for certain, was handed the treasure of my life. june 22, 1993. the day the best of me was born.

a work very much in progress. the best work in all my oeuvre.

i love you, sweet will, with all my heart and all my soul and everything that dwells between.

chair people, thanks for indulging me in this morning’s labor of truest deepest love. i found the photo above — my sweet boy’s forehead stamped with a “stork kiss” from my beloved obstetrician, who made it a habit of smearing on bright red lipstick to mark her babies shortly after birth — while working on a little picture project. i’ve been compiling a little something for my sweet boy’s birthday and this frame floated to the top.

feel free to tell what birthed the best of you along the way….

never enough will