dispatch from 75005 paris, in which one of us is very much missing as we stroll the bedazzled city of lights . . .
there must be a rule about not being allowed to be heartsick in paris, but i’m breaking it. three of us are here, in a fifth-floor aerie beside the luxembourg garden, where the buttery scents of the creperie below slither in through the wide-open windows. but one of us is very much not here.
amid the myriad rules the french seem to have drawn up but kept close to the vest (more on that in a minute…), there is the one that insists your passport is valid for 90 days after you leave the country. well, our very own law professor, not having memorized the fine print of french law, found out at check-in saturday night that his passport, valid until august 27, falls 11 days short of that bar. so: no “valid” passport, no boarding pass, no way to get in.
for five anguishing days, he and we and a superhero named mary (my long-adored once-upon-a-time babysitter-slash-make-believe sister who’s never even met the professor in person, but who made it her mission to move this immovable mountain) tried every last trick in the emergency-passport book: standing in line at 6 a.m. at the US Passport Agency in washington, d.c., where not an appointment was granted (and without an appointment, no chance at a passport); trying to get in the door at the french embassy, where the professor wasn’t even allowed to stand near the door and ordered to move across the street; even a wild-eyed last-ditch scheme to fly to calgary, canada, where a rare passport appointment slot was to be had (but mary’s 11th-hour call to her immigration lawyer—yes, she happens to have one—revealed that the emergency passport he might get there would still not get him into the country). so, hearts sunk and throbbing with hurt, we declared it a loss and canceled the last flight united airlines was offering. (they admitted that when we bought the tickets to paris way back in january, the agent we talked to might have been wise to mention the so-called schengen rule, and thus they had been willing to rebook his flight until wednesday, insisting he should have had time to fix le probleme.)
tears have been wept here in paree. and very good thing the gendarmes seem not to have noticed. there might be a rule and, mais oui, a penalty.
the whole point of this trip, from beginning to end, was a very rare chance—after three years of covid, after law school, after college, and emphatically after a surgery that knocked the breath right out of me—to bask in the light of simply being together. without distraction. without deadline.
for weeks now, while my lung and its new metal threads stitched themselves back together again, and i learned how to take a deep breath again, i pictured one simple scene, one that carried me across many a bump in my most recent road: i imagined looking up from my chair in a bistro, at the radiant glow of my beautiful boys circling the table—mid-laugh, mid-long-winded tale, mid the most simple treasure of being together.
not too many weeks ago i was weighing five-year survival rates, and when that becomes your math, each day’s import is quadrupled, quintupled, or more. so, yes, this city amazes and charms at every twist and turn in the ancient allees and at every wide-open vista along the grand boulevards. but part of me is very much missing, and if the doctors looked at my heart this very minute, they’d declare it a sick little ticker, missing a part of its most heavenly beat.
adding insult to injury in the annals of this unforgettable trip, sweet boy No. 2 was yesterday all but accosted by a phalanx of gendarmes who rushed onto our train car as we neared our station, home from versailles, asked to see our tickets, rattled off something menacing en francais, then pulled out a laminated card and something about “penalty 60 Euro.” we sat bewildered (and alarmed that the next thing we’d see was a dangling pair of silvery cuffs). and tried to insist we’d seen not a warning, nor quite understood. mais non! the crime for which he was fined: resting the edge of his shoe on the edge of the seat across from him.
the morals of this sorrowful tale: check your dang passport, check the intricacies of crossing any international border (see: Schengen Rule), and don’t rest your sole on the edge of the train seat.
other than that, all is charmed in the city of so many bedazzling lights. (see photos below.)
and i’ll just have to wait till we’re back in the states to plop myself down with all three of my boys. no passport required.
of course you expected no dispatch so glum, certainly not from the home of the crepe and escargot, and i’m trying my darnedest to savor each hour. just telling the truth, as is always my promise.
what vacation mishaps do you have to tell?and how did you manage to make it all right? or at least glean a wisdom from out of the ashes?
once the adrenaline died down, more fire-hydrant surge than all-out combat, once i paused my pounding on the window, realized how close i’d come to thrusting my fist right through the glass, shattering and bleeding sure to pre-empt the rescue i’d attempted, once i took a breath, my first impulse was to think maybe i’d jinxed it.
it must be my fault for letting out their secret. maybe i shouldn’t have extolled the wonders of the nest right before my eyes.
here’s what happened: mama and i were, as we’d been for weeks, co-existing peacefully, she on her side of the glass, blanketing her babies in her downy feathers, me tap-tapping away here on the word-churn machine. it was late saturday afternoon, just one short day and a half after i’d spun the tale of how mama cardinal and i were expectantly working toward our deadlines: mine, a book in the making; hers, a clutch of eggs.
she’d been on the nest 15 days and counting. i delighted at the way she punctuated our shared workspace –– seemingly out of the blue –– by belting out an abbreviated string of song, as if she’d suddenly been overcome by the jubilance of nesting. any day now, i would have heard the wee peep-peep-peeps of nestlings, seen the blur of pointy beaks thrusting skyward for an airdrop of worm.
but then, at nearly six o’clock that fateful evening, without so much as a peep of warning, in those final hours of what eliot so rightly termed “the cruellest month,” there suddenly arose from the bushes such squawking as i’ve never heard. i turned and saw furiously flapping wings — mama and papa both, each on separate branches of the ordinary evergreen that for two weeks now had been the nursery for their nest, the closest i had ever come to northern cardinal observation deck, a broodling in the works. while the two of them squawked and flapped, i noticed the third player in this late-breaking drama. it was furry, brown, and little. its stripe down the back gave it away: a chipmunk. a very hungry and extremely nasty chipmunk, if you don’t mind my editorializing. i leapt into life-guard mode, pounded hard as i could pound from my side of the glass. gave a holler to my own mother, ensconced in her armchair in the other room. as if she could help me here in dire land. at first my pounding seemed to confound the furry one, he turned down the branch, as if in exit. but then, he must have had a second thought, for up he turned, and scampered head-first into the nest. oh, dear god, such horror i’ve not witnessed. this was full-tilt assault. this was nature at its cruelest. and i stood witness. after plumbing the hollow of the nest, the hungry varmint turned and ran. i couldn’t swear to what i saw, but it would not be wrong to think i saw him clutching something in his mouth.
poor mama sat there flapping. her squawks slowing but not quieting. she circled the branch a few lonely times and then resumed her post. we both tried to catch our breath. i tried to convince myself that all was not lost, perhaps the casualty count was one and only one. and, besides, mama stood her post straight through to nightfall, never once lifting her belly from what she surely must be guarding with her life. only then, when darkness eclipsed my keeping watch, did i surrender too; turned off my desk lamp, whispered benediction, and tiptoed off, unsure of what the dark would bring.
alas, when dawn came, i threw off my blankets and hurried down the stairs. no mama. i’d thought i heard a muffled squawk not too too long after dark. i now presume the furry thing returned, finished the deed. the dastardly, dastardly deed.
and so, the nest is empty. quite literally as i have just now hauled a step ladder out the door and, clinging for dear life, i climbed and pulled back branches, and indeed there is not a sign of life. just the artistry of their construction, right down to the shiny cellophane they might have thought to employ as something of a rain guard, what with all the rainy weeks of april.
turns out, the cardinals never had more than a one in three chance at making it out of the nest. despite their predilection for deeply tucking away their vernal constructions — remnants of a summer past, a bricolage of bits, dried grasses, thread-thin sticks, that cellophane wrapper perhaps from someone’s pack of cigarettes — the northern cardinal ranks near the sorry cellar of the nesting-survival charts, a long tumble down from the ash-throated flycatcher who scores the highest chance of flying from the nest, with seven of ten baby flycatchers flying. only the lowly house sparrow (11 percent chance) and the european starling (16 percent) fare worse than the red birds, and both sparrow and starling are invaders, anyway, non-native species snuck in as unintended cargo on some north america-bound vessel.
it hurt to sit here the first few days, the silence pounding in my ear. the absence of mama’s brown and red tail feathers protruding from the tuft of evergreen in which she so adeptly hid her nest.
and then i started to consider my own empty nest, a consideration that comes, of course, as mothering day approaches. i think as much now about mothering as i ever have. though it consumes fewer hours of my focus, and fewer drives hither and yon, my fascination only deepens. i think often of how rare — how blessed — it is to know so fluently the whole makings of any life, let alone these two i love so dearly. day by day, it seems, the adventures pick up pace. the twists and turns in their narratives expand my own sense of being alive, being witness to lives unfurling each according to his own storyline. from my perch here at the old homestead, where i am reliably on watch and ever present, i follow two young men carving out paths that couldn’t be more different and yet entwine in ways that make me see the shared origins loud and clear and undeniably. the little boy who once could stare at a tv screen for interminably long times, he is carving out a path to be the very voices, the very storytellers, he once listened to. and the one who once set up an easel in the living room, encircled the room with every stuffed critter from his toy box, donned suspenders and necktie, scooped up a clutch of alphabet letters, and commenced a lecture on the fine points of S-U-M and Q, he looks toward a life in lecture halls filled with legal scholars in the making. let the record show it was snoopy who got first crack at his fledgling professorial skills.
my job here — simply loving through and through — will never ever be done. they might not need me (not so often anyway) to rouse them from their slumbers, to ferry them to the school house door, to shiver on their sidelines, but i’ve come to understand that my unique brand of loving means i’ll never find a way to lay aside aside my worries and my sometimes overly rambunctious fears. the phone calls these days are farther in between, the texts often unanswered, but my contemplations and my prayers deepen by the month. i’ve started worrying in a whole new way about this world we’re leaving to their keeping. i once held out hope that they could right our many, many wrongs. but now i wonder if we’re too far gone, this world so broken in so many places.
i look to mama bird, and her now hollowed nest. there is stunned silence out my window. no flicker of a sighting of mama now at it once again. she makes me think hard about the seasons of mothering, how some are full to bursting, and others pulse with a kind of aching, a sorrow for the hours out of reach, a longing for the more tactile days when every flinch and whimper was within our watch. her empty nest makes me think hard about the one i call my own, at once emptier and fuller than i can sometimes truly comprehend.
no wonder mothering never ever loosens its holy grip on me.
may your motherings be ever blessed, in whatever ways you love and hold those you count as your dearest rarest treasures.
nativity, by dictionary definition, the occasion of a person’s birth. most often told in airbrushed terms. but i find myself drawn in more deeply by the grainiest of tellings.
for me, the miraculous emerges in contemplating the earthiest of details: not simply imagining the lowings of the cow, or the stench of a barn, or the cold night air, but the raw biology of birthing. how it stretches almost to the breaking point the mother’s flesh and frame; the messiness of all the leaking. from afterbirth to latching on, gestation’s final act is no theater of the sanitized.
that we begin our resurrection story in a barn, that the virgin mother did not escape the grunts and tears and unveiled exposures of labor pains, of crowning and pushing, of colostrum and breastmilk coming in, engorging. that divinity begins in common birth, as every one of us began: through birth canal and searing pain, through a mother’s intense focus and channeled superhuman forces, through flesh to flesh for days and weeks on end.
as one poet so powerfully put it: “For any birth makes an inconvenient demand; / Like all holy things / It is frequently a nuisance, and its needs never end /…” and as another poet begins her own musings, “sometimes I wonder / if Mary breastfed Jesus. / if she cried out when he bit her / or if she sobbed when he would not latch. / …”
two poems, both nativity poems, struck me hard this week. they trickled in separately, but when i looked at them together, side by side, i found them magnifying and illuminating in echo of each other.
here are the poems, and a bit about each poet. all in the spirit of drawing our deepening attention to the birthing story coming….
first the poems, beginning with the older one, written some time between 1939 and 1943 (i discovered it last year, and promptly ordered from england anne ridler’s collected poems); and the newer poem, written just two years ago and published on facebook, no less, on december 16, 2019.
Christmas and the Common Birth by Anne Ridler
Christmas declares the glory of the flesh: And therefore a European might wish To celebrate it not at mid winter but in spring, When physical life is strong, When the consent to live is forced even on the young, Juice is in the soil, the leaf, the vein, Sugar flows to movement in limbs and brain. Also, before a birth, nourishing the child, We turn again to the earth With unusual longing – to what is rich, wild, Substantial: scents that have been stored and strengthened In apple lofts, the underwash of woods, and in barns; Drawn through the lengthened root; pungent in cones (While the fir wood stands waiting; the beechwood aspiring, Each in a different silence), and breaking out in spring With scent sight sound indivisible in song.
Yet if you think again It is good that Christmas comes at the dark dream of the year That might wish to sleep ever. For birth is awaking, birth is effort and pain; And now at midwinter are the hints, inklings (Sodden primrose, honeysuckle greening) That sleep must be broken. To bear new life or learn to live is an exacting joy; The whole self must waken; you cannot predict the way It will happen, or master the responses beforehand. For any birth makes an inconvenient demand; Like all holy things It is frequently a nuisance, and its needs never end; Freedom it brings: we should welcome release From its long merciless rehearsal of peace.
So Christ comes At the iron senseless time, comes To force the glory into frozen veins: His warmth wakes
Green life glazed in the pool, wakes All calm and crystal trance with the living pains.
And each year In seasonal growth is good – year That lacking love is a stale story at best; By God’s birth Our common birth is holy; birth Is all at Christmas time and wholly blest.
sometimes i wonder by Kaitlin Hardy Shetler
sometimes I wonder if Mary breastfed Jesus. if she cried out when he bit her or if she sobbed when he would not latch.
and sometimes I wonder if this is all too vulgar to ask in a church full of men without milk stains on their shirts or coconut oil on their breasts preaching from pulpits off limits to the Mother of God.
but then i think of feeding Jesus, birthing Jesus, the expulsion of blood and smell of sweat, the salt of a mother’s tears onto the soft head of the Salt of the Earth, feeling lonely and tired hungry annoyed overwhelmed loving
and i think, if the vulgarity of birth is not honestly preached by men who carry power but not burden, who carry privilege but not labor, who carry authority but not submission, then it should not be preached at all.
because the real scandal of the Birth of God lies in the cracked nipples of a 14 year old and not in the sermons of ministers who say women are too delicate to lead.
Anne Bradby Ridler (1912-2001)
A British poet and librettist, remembered as “essentially a sacramental poet,” Anne Bradby Ridler was originally hired as a secretary at the London-based publisher Faber & Faber, and later worked as an assistant to T.S. Eliot, selecting the poems for A Little Volume of Modern Verse. She was a friend, too, of C.S. Lewis and W.H. Auden, Dylan Thomas and Lawrence Durrell, and was considered “on the edge” of the Inklings group (the closest proximity for a woman of those times). Born to a literary family, her mother was a writer of children’s books, including The Enchanted Forest; her father, a first-class cricketer, schoolmaster, and poet.
According to a charming passage in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography:
“In childhood Anne Bradby was surrounded by influences that fed her imagination and intellectual inquisitiveness. At home there was white wallpaper and William Morris chintzes, a picture (attributed to Canaletto) of the Campanile at Venice and a Broadwood piano—and in playing it she experienced the joy which she later remembered Yehudi Menuhin describing as the essential ingredient for the education of any player. In Rugby School (where her father was schoolmaster) there was architecture by William Butterfield and in his style. In the community there were dramatized scenes from Shakespeare that her mother produced for the children of various families. A favourite place at home was the midway ledge of the double bookcase in the hall, in which was stored a mass of books. ‘Reading to myself’, she wrote, ‘began to be my greatest resource … and the basis of my imaginative life’.”
She’s been called a modern metaphysical poet, whose work is rife with complex metaphors. Overtly Christian, she explored religious themes, and human experience, especially motherhood and marriage. “Many of her poems mark arrivals and departures: her husband leaving in wartime, the birth of a child, the death of her father. The need to understand things passing and to give them some currency in memory and then in poetry lies at the heart of her work,” wrote Peter Forbes, editor of the Poetry Review, shortly after her death.
She earned a degree in journalism from King’s College London; her first volume of poetry was destroyed in a bombing raid in 1940. A member for three decades of the Oxford Bach Choir, her poetries are best heard aloud, “full of subtle coloration and rhetorical balance.” You can hear her reading one of my favorites, “Snakeshead Fritillaries” here.
Shortly after her death in October of 2001, TheGuardian wrote in her obituary: “Ridler’s poetry displayed an attention to cadence and musicality in both her formal and her free verse, and managed to combine a Christian spirituality and Latinate, Elizabethan elegance with a more modern, even sceptical, tone. While some poems are overtly religious – Carol To Be Set To Music and Prayer In A Pestilent Time – she would more often situate her everyday subjects in contexts of both faith and doubt.” Later in the obit, the literary critic Grave Lindop was quoted as saying: “She had the clearest and best-balanced poetic intelligence I have ever met.”
Shortly before her death, Ridley was made an OBE (Order of the British Empire) for services to literature. She sought not fame, preferring, she once claimed, “to think of herself as invisible.” According to the Poetry Archive, a British-based not-for-profit that preserves recordings of poets reading their own works aloud, “Her quiet excellence, however, is far from inaudible.”
Kaitlin Hardy Shetler
Kaitlin Shetler’s poem, “sometimes i wonder,” has been called a “short sermon in the form of an Advent poem.” Shetler describes herself as an “advocate for women and justice, and occasional preacher in Churches of Christ circles.” This one poem—something of an internet sensation—was thought to have reached—through the powers of social media—more than 10 million, a number exceeding the worldwide membership of the evangelical Churches of Christ. And that was almost two years ago. The arithmetic knows no bounds. What’s most critical to understanding the subtext of her poem is that hers is a church known to be one of the most restrictive to women and girls in its fold (women and girls are completely excluded from speaking, or leading, or otherwise actively serving in its worship services).
Now a senior program associate at the Vera Institute of Justice, a not-for-profit whose mission is to end the overcriminalization and mass incarceration of people of color, immigrants, and people experiencing poverty, Shetler is a Licensed Master Social Worker, and described on the Vera Institute’s website thusly: “Kaitlin has over 10 years’ experience working with vulnerable populations. During her senior year in undergrad, she managed the domestic violence shelter in her college’s small town. After college, she spent a year working as a case manager and mental health intern at the Vanderbilt Psychiatric Hospital. After graduating from the University of Tennessee Knoxville with her master’s in social work, Kaitlin worked as a behavioral rehabilitation instructor for the state of Tennessee. There she developed a passion for the disability community and best practices for advocating for young adults with disabilities.”
She started writing poetry in 2018, and her Advent poem, a year later; since then, she’s penned a growing library of Poems for the Resistance. She mentioned in one interview that she “felt a little guilty about taking credit for this poem, because I truly feel it was God speaking and I was just writing it down.”
Her mission, she says, is “to find the kicked out, the bruised, and burdened and to learn at their feet.”
and through her poetry, we all do.
through both their poetries–through anne’s, the poet who preferred invisibility, and through kaitlin’s, who has found a pulpit in her poems–i find myself on my knees, contemplating the complexities and interweavings of birth and God, of the radical equation that is the Christmas wonder.
amen, amen to all.
your thoughts on the poems? or your own favorite nativity poem?
huge and unending thanks to my beloved friend andrea who sent me kaitlin’s poem, and to the inimitable poet priest malcolm guite, who a year ago sent me (and many others) the beginnings of my anne ridler steepings.
p.s. one tiny housekeeping thing: for clarity’s sake, when writing the biographies above, i step into my big-girl writing shoes and bring out the caps key, lest my fondness for lower-case prove too vexing when trying to seize the facts. (and maybe just to prove i can find the caps key when pressed!)
used to be i could fix things. when the lunch box was left at home, i could drive it to the schoolhouse door. the ladies in the office always obliged, and, knowingly nodding, got it delivered. when the mercury on the thermometer soared, or someone’s rosy red cheeks broke out in bumps, i slid open the medicine drawer, pulled out just the right fix-it concoction. when a red crayon snuck into a pocket that went into the dryer, i spent a whole afternoon plucking streaks of red wax from the tumbler. by sundown, you’d never have known.
there was nary a thing i couldn’t patch back together, couldn’t replace, couldn’t make right by the end of the day.
but then the kids on whom i fixated my fix-it powers, they grew up. and while my doctor just the other morning announced that i’d shrunk by nearly an inch, i think she might have overlooked the fact that my magical powers are no longer. they’ve expired. passed the date on the side of the label. must have let out a gasp like air escaping from tires.
now, when a kid with a heavy heart calls late in the night, all i can do is listen. and mutter a swear word or two. (lest you tsk-tsk, the truth of the matter is that i’ve somehow managed to teach my nonagenarian mother the sheer satisfaction, the gleeful release, of a short swift four-letter word. we swear in unison now, my mother and i. one of our few shared pursuits.)
most of the time — thank the holy heavens — the things that bang up the heart of someone you love aren’t necessarily life or death. sometimes it’s a stupid clerical error that mucks up the works. and triggers hard-to-swallow outcomes. leaves a kid on the sidelines. figuratively or otherwise.
more often than not — knock on wood — the things that shove us into the ditch are things from which we recover. another chance comes along. time passes. someone reminds us to laugh. the sky, one night as the sun sets, paints itself a shade of papaya.
it’s the immediate wake that’s tripping me up. it’s what comes after you hang up the phone. when you remember the old days, the days when it was your job to be the cleaner-upper, the fixer, the homegrown sorceress who kept all the goblins at bay.
you realize your heydays are over. you can’t really fly in on your broom anymore, can’t kiss the hurt, and make the sting go away.
you know — because you’ve read it in books, heard it whispered on benches at playgrounds — that it’s your job now to let your kid figure it out. employ their own fix-it powers. exercise resiliency. suffer the blow.
so you do as instructed. you stand back. feeling the lump in your throat grow bigger and bigger. wondering why your chest hurts so much.
you wish you could pick up the phone. call the college. or the boss. explain the injustice. beg for mercy, like any self-respecting grownup would do.
but then, once again, you remember there’s another self-respecting grownup these days; it’s the kid you raised to not topple, not go weak in the knees every time life throws a hook. you tried your darnedest not to over-coddle (though coddling, i’d argue, is just another name for fiercely protecting, and i’d made a vow, a heavenly vow — silly as it might seem — to protect to the death the children i bore. i once actually — naively — believed that if i loved them fiercely enough i could keep them from every last hurt. turns out, the joke was on me).
i miss the days when i could all but fling on my cape, swoop in for the rescue. slice an apple in crescents, grab a fistful of pretzels, stir chocolate in milk. snuggle close on the couch. tuck someone in bed, plant a fat wet kiss to the cheeks. make it all better again.
i wish i’d realized back then that those were the days, the sweet days, when what ailed, and what brewed was within my magical powers. and i could turn out the lights knowing that all was, indeed and in fact, better again. the monsters were chased from the room.
it’s what happens when mothers grow up. though not quite as fast nor as sturdily as their beautiful, beautiful now grown and resilient long-ago children.
our magical powers give out, quite before we’re honestly ready.
*of course i am simplifying here to make a general point, to muse on the achy part of feeling ourselves shoved from one stage to another. certainly there are times when the heavy hearts of my boys demand all i’ve got: not only my listening, but my leaping on planes, tracking down every last possible lead, and whatever else the worry or quandary or setback requires. it’s just that more often than it used to be, i’m merely the backdrop, the listening board, the human sponge for the sadness, dread, disappointment, you name it.
once upon a time, did you too expect that magical powers must be a clause in the motherly job description? did those powers fizzle over time, and what do you do with the ache when you realize your magic wand has given up the ghost?
mothers reach for what they need. mothers reach for amulets and gear, paraphernalia and patron saints, to protect their children. it’s an impulse as ancient as time. and will go on till the end of time. of that i am certain.
a mother’s wiring drives me, has driven me now for the better part of 28 years, ever since the doctor told me, incontrovertibly, with the swishing heartsounds of the sonogram echoing wall-to-wall across the darkened tiny room — nine months after the heartache of losing our first — that a life stirred within.
ever since, my first and last impulse, above all, is to keep him safe. to shield life and limb, and cranium too, from incoming assault, be it playground invective, asphalt bike path, high-speed hardball, or any of the fully-pictured atrocities that have played — and replayed — in my too-colorful head.
it is dystopian, at least, that this summer i’ve found myself clicking “buy” on a two-pack of plastic shields, the better to keep the red-ringed virus at bay when a boy i love is flying hither and yon, criss-crossing america at altitudes of 35,000 feet. tuesday night, he dons it for the second time, as he flies from JFK to PDX, that’s new york to portland, oregon, about as long a flight as the american continent offers.
and PDX is where the impenetrable helmet comes in. ever since i started reading reports of unidentified federal forces cruising portland’s downtown streets, driving unmarked vehicles, plucking protestors from sidewalks, stuffing them in vans, without word of miranda rights or where or why on earth they were taking them (leaving some to fear to god they were literally being kidnapped by bands of who knows who), i started thinking about helmets. about what my firstborn might put on his not insignificant head to keep it from getting bashed with the wrong end of a police baton, or any other unidentified thrashing implement.
mind you, it’s not that i worry my firstborn will soon be leaping into the late-night protest. it’s that he’ll be walking to and fro to work. to and from a federal courthouse, as it so happens (though not the one at the epicenter of all the melee; his is the other federal courthouse, two blocks north and west). and in this american summer, in a city besieged by federal forces wielding tear gas canisters and “less-than-lethal” (thank god for modifiers here) weapons, a mother starts considering the selling points and perqs of various impenetrable protective head gear.
which is utterly dystopian, improbable in any other summer than the one that is the america of 2020, a year decidedly not clear-focused. and it makes me think of the litany of mothers who through time have had to send off sons and daughters, who’ve awaited letters, answered the ominous knock at the door, as my own grandmother did, when her son was killed in a midnight ambush on iwo jima. it makes me think of the south side chicago mothers who cannot count on the windows of their minivans to shield the incoming bullets, the ones killing toddlers — even babies; a five-month-old shot just last week in old town — strapped in car seats.
there are mothers weeping across america, across this globe, and the tears seem endless, are endless. will the weeping and the wailing ever, ever end? do we stand a chance to finally stanch the sorrow?
mothers shouldn’t have to plot the surest bullet-free path to school. nor which playlot might prove lethal. children shouldn’t have to spend their summers behind closed curtains, in the corner of a room farthest from the picture window, where crossfire could soar in. mothers shouldn’t have to lay awake nights imagining the phone call, calculating how long it would take to race to the ICU bedside. mothers shouldn’t have to hear the click of the coffin closing.
this is no easy summer in america.
short of searching the internet for plastic shields and bash-proof helmets, we’ve got work to do here in the land of the brave and the free.
america is crying. are we listening? are we doing what we must?
and those my friends are the questions, the imperative questions: are we listening? are we doing what we must?
the homecoming was delayed. the homecoming was complicated. by COVID, of course. it entailed a long drive, half across the country, nights in borrowed beds, and one in a hotel with a curious chandelier fixation. but, at long last, the station wagon, packed to the gills with the siftings of law school life that won’t be moving to the next chapter, pulled into the garage just as the sun lowered in wednesday night’s sky.
i leapt as soon as i saw the light shining through the garage window, realizing the devoted driver (the one who’d set out across the country simply to shave one airplane ride’s risk from the summer’s complicated travel equation, the one who’d driven 28 hours just to shield his firstborn from the fear of worrying if the guy with the coughing fits two seats away was spreading the dread disease), had picked up the pace on the drive through america’s flatland–ohio, indiana, the surrounds of chicago.
i wish i’d had a picture of the sight i saw next: the graduate in graduation robe, (the tassled-cap had been momentarily misplaced under the heap in the wagon’s rear spaces) with N95 mask strapped round his beard (yes, we know that beards are not optimal tonsorial fare, not in the age of the red-ringed virus), bare legs, and the crumbs of a cross-country car trip. for a pause of a moment we air hugged. but then, i surrendered. if COVID comes roaring this way, i’m going down with the rest of us. and, anyway, it seems biologically impossible to dwell in the same house and avoid rampant exposure. (COVID tests have now been taken, and we await the results, in two to four business days.)
ever since, it’s been decidedly noisier here, and far less monastically choreographed. as i type, two laptops are spread across the kitchen island, conjoined by a wire, as the old one disgorges its contents into the new one. tax returns are piled next to the laptops, leftover business best dealt with with mom and dad’s stamps. the peanut butter jar is curiously emptying, by the giant-sized spoonful. and the pile of laundry is teetering toward the basement rafters.
the most curious thing, or maybe the most complicated, is my heart. i find myself aswim in an aching as i realize just how uncommon, how far-apart-and-few-between these homecomings will be. how we’re not really his home anymore (something i certainly know intellectually–i’ve been sending packages to new haven, connecticut, for the last three years, after all, and before that, for four years, to amherst, massachusetts–but in that way where the heart is at peace with a knowing, is humming along with the whole of it, well that certainty is not yet ground into the walls of this ol’ ticker), and i’m not really ready to swallow that truth. truth is, we feel something like a way-station. a place to store old paintings for a year. a place to tuck the graduation gown into the back of the closet. a place where old stories are the ones that most vividly percolate.
and i find myself yearning–sometimes just a tad, other times with every ounce of my heart–for the old days, when night after night all four of us fell asleep under the same single roof, and every morning was a mad-dash to somewhere, with someone or something inevitably lost, left behind, or stuck in the laundry chute. wishing i’d known then–amid the full-on, high-decibel chaos–just how much and how soon i’d come to miss the whole of it.
i promise i’m savoring the sweetness of now. savoring every blessed drop of it. cooking like there’s no tomorrow (and the way the dinner plates are being piled high, there might be no food for the morrow; the fridge looks to be draining in double-time). throwing my own to-do list to the wind. we are staying up far too late, all of us curled on the couch, trading wit, witticism, and old family barbs as we catch up on netflix.
but the sense of evanescence is inevitable, undeniable. already the flights to oregon have been booked. the lease in downtown portland, soon to be signed. the summer is short. i’m catching my breath.
and, for now, i’m wrapping myself in the strands–tangled and not–of my mothersong, the one that pours from my heart’s truest, deepest stillpoint. the warbles and wobbles, the uncertain off notes, they’re all a part of its beauties. the heart, at its glorious best, is a vessel of many scales, chords, and rhythms.
and i’m finding my way, line after line.
a premise here at the chair is that truth–even when it’s messy–is what we trade in. in the ordinariness of our lives, we pay attention, we alight on illuminations. i teeter here on the brink, the edge between chapters and verse. i write to find my way, to make sense, to reach for understandings.
how do you navigate the in-betweens of your life, those stirrings that animate the not-yet-settled?
it felt almost like instinct. as the weeks narrowed to days narrowed to hours, i couldn’t keep from stockpiling. soon as the boy — now sleeping just overhead, in the bed by the bend in the stairs — soon as the boy told me he’d found a ride after all, was coming home for a three-day break — fall break, officially — my fill-the-larder instincts kicked in.
lavish him in all the tastes and smells and textures and offerings he could possibly wish for. that seemed to be the propelling mission.
so i stockpiled. stockpiled pumpkin pie from the farmer’s market, grabbed a loaf of banana bread while i was at it. stockpiled cider and raspberry rugelah. ordered up a chicken pot pie from a mama who makes it delicious.
the sheets on his bed hadn’t been touched since the day after he left the room empty as empty could be, the day i scrubbed every last inch of that room, as if preserving something ineffable. the room, more relic than place to hang out these days, barely needed a flick of my wrist. but i vacuumed anyway.
the prodigal papa back in the bible, he wasn’t the only one who knows of the fatted calf. i too might have tossed a beast onto a pyre if chicken pot pie hadn’t been to his liking, the kid who rode six swift hours in the back of a minivan, the kid who all but tumbled onto the street once the four wheels pulled to a stop there at the curb.
we squeezed so tight it’s a miracle all my ribs are still in one piece. i wiped away tears (of course) and then we loped in the house, past the welcome home sign that only made him laugh, because it’s a truth in this house that you can hardly take a trip to the grocery store without finding a welcome home sign upon your return.
inside, once he kicked off his shoes, he too seemed to kick into some instinctual and ancient reflex: he walked room to room to room to see if anything had changed, to make sure all was as he’d left it. then, and only then, did he settle into his most native rite of settling in (be he gone for merely an hour or long weeks on end) as he began to circle the kitchen island in the way he (and his brother; it must be genetic) forever have done, ambulation propelling cognition it seems. story spilling upon story, each one told to the beat of his footfall.
he punctuated his stories with poking around the pantry, inspecting the fridge, and, after all the wind-up, picking a plain old box of make-your-own mac-n-cheese, the kind he’s loved since he was three. and so his first feast at home after seven and a half weeks wasn’t the hoosier mama chicken pot pie, wasn’t the homemade cranberry-studded applesauce, wasn’t the farmer-baked banana bread or the kosher-deli raspberry rugelah. it was the starchy pile of pasta shells swirled with powdery cheese turned into goop. he nearly licked the pot, my boy who’s grown three-quarters of an inch since last he was home (we pulled out the tape measure and measured).
all that spooning into his mouth must have left him exhausted, for the next stop on the homecoming tour was a flop backward onto his bed, and a sigh of pure joy like nothing i’ve heard in a very long while. he mumbled something about how glorious it was to sleep on a mattress that cared for a spine and all its spiky little vertebrae. but then he was off in dreamland, not to be heard from for hours and hours.
it didn’t take me long to realize there’s something (very much something) of the human heart involved in all the stockpiling. it’s almost as if in shopping and shlepping and stocking the shelves (and the fridge and the countertop and the blue willow plate under the cookie dome) we’re giving the blood-pumping muscle a boost. almost as if all the comestibles are edible poetry, are the extensions of our vocabulary. as if they pick up where words cannot go. as if they’ll reach deep into nooks and crannies, as if they’ll saturate every last cell that just might need to be bathed in the notion that someone loves you through and through and through. as if we can’t go the distance all on our own.
it’s almost as if the stockpiling is squeezing every last drop of that thing we call love out of the tired old muscle — the magnificent vessel — that is the human heart. that storehouse deep inside our ribs where all the love is churned, is harbored, is pumped into the ether. almost like it’s a little bitty factory, a production line of loving, that never ever dies. not even when we do, i’m utterly certain.
it all made me wonder if this might be the rhythm from here on in, in these days when the boys i love most dearly are far far from home, and their visits grow less and less frequent: will i learn to stockpile, to fill the larder with all the love i used to lavish day upon day, hour after hour, the barely-noticeable ministrations of the heart — the kiss on the forehead while they’re sleeping, the whiff of their hair while setting a plate at their place at the old maple table, even the occasional deep inhale and sigh when tossing piles of muddy sweaty clothes into the wash? will i store it all up, every last drop of it, and save it for when they come home, when it will all but ooze out of me, when i all but plant myself at the door of his sleeping room, just to watch the rise and fall of his breathing? will i ever not miss the days when i used to wear them, literally strapped into bundles across my chest? the days when their itty-bitty plump-dimpled hands were always reaching up for a lift or a hug or a squeeze round the neck? all our life long, the gestures of love shift and evolve. and while the deep caverns of the mind grow more and more nuanced and brilliant, sometimes it’s the old ways, the skin-to-skin entanglements of mother and child that i miss, that can’t be replaced, can’t be once again, all over again.
so we stockpile. we store it all up, and we ooze it all out for those short few hours and days when they’re close enough that we can hear their breathing, bury our nose in their necks. one deep inhale, one that’s going to need to last for weeks or months on end.
it’s been a busy week around here: my first book review for OrionMagazine is online. twas of a beautiful, beautiful memoir, The Salt Path, about an epic journey propelled by unlikely homelessness and a dire diagnosis, one that leads to epiphany, and you can find the review here.
but the bigger news of the week is that the book i’ve been working on for months (years, actually) is officially published and stocked on the amazon bookshelves. it’s my friend mary ellen’s book, “On the Wings of the Hummingbird: A Chronicle of Joy, Grief, and Gratitude,” a collection of her beautiful breathtaking essays. here’s what i wrote when i posted something of a birthing announcement on facebook yesterday:
When Mary Ellen started her blog, “On the Wings of the Hummingbird,” on March 2, 2012, she harbored a flickering hope that someday it might lead to a book. She never dreamed she would die just four years and 11 days after “Hummingbird” first took flight. Yet her dream of a book never died. And so, after a few years of culling and sorting and weaving her essays into a whole (a labor of love that became mine when I found out a month after her death that in her will she’d appointed me “custodian of her creative work”), it is with pure joy that Mary Ellen’s family and I announce the birth of her book, “On the Wings of the Hummingbird: A Chronicle of Joy, Grief, and Gratitude.” It’s a distillation of Mary Ellen’s profound wisdom, her unending gratitude, and her unrelenting search for and discovery of joys even amid the shadow of grief and fear as she traversed the uncharted landscape she’d never imagined. It’s slim and it’s elegant and it shimmers with a beauty that was hers alone. Her words, her urgent pleadings, are sure to etch deeply into your heart. It’s available in paperback and e-book, and you’ll find it on Amazon.
two versions of covers, one for the e-book, left, and one for the paperback, right. i was constrained by the strictures of the platform, but tried to make the whole of the book as beautiful as mary ellen’s indelible words…..
how do you stockpile — and lavish — the love in your life?
i am finding my way, or trying anyway, one page at a time.
the stacks of books are growing at a precipitous, and possibly murderous, rate. it’s not quite as death-defying as the bibliophiles who cowered on the cover of middle june’s new yorker, the brilliant bruce eric kaplan’s “bedtime stories,” which made me laugh out loud (in sorry self-recognition). but it’s growing at a rate that might make ol’ jack and his beanstalk shudder.
certainly propelled by the question of the season — what will you do with your one wild and precious life? — i climb the stairs of this old house, this increasingly arthritic house (the old wood slabs and my old bones now creaking in something akin to unison). i am, more often than not, carrying a small armload of books. i carry them, logs to the pyre, to see what i might kindle from the depths of their pages.
my destination is the nook by the window that’s become my signature perch. my aerie. the crow’s nest for those not tossing on the seas, but merely tossing in the undulations of her own uncharted life.
i am, i suppose, reading my way toward some more certain path. and, more often than not, i find myself inside poetry. i find poems the surest way toward clarity. it’s the way a poem illuminates the barest wisps of the everyday, the quotidian. imbues those moments with the volumes of understanding, or wisdom, i’ve always sensed. poetry puts dimension, puts shadow, light, and a spectrum of color, to the otherwise unnoticed.
and therein i find what i call sacred. the holiness of the every blessed moment. if only we stop to mine the depths, the strata, the igneous rock bed beneath the flimsy shale.
this week, as i squirm inside the borderless plateau that is my newfound station, as i arch this way and that, wondering where my path is hiding, i stumbled onto this most perfect poem, one that almost seemed to be a polaroid of the moment in which i find myself: the work of my lifetime, mothering, now coming to a turn.
but what i love the most about this poem, “things you didn’t put on your résumé,” by the brilliant minnesota poet laureate, joyce sutphen, is that it holds the everyday up to the light. shines incandescence on the otherwise invisible. she says it more pulsingly and achingly than i’ve ever managed to capture it (though i wrote three books trying…..)
so from my corner nook in my window seat, looking out into the linden boughs and the serviceberry where the sparrows romp, here’s the perfect poem for this moment when i am looking back at all that’s been, missing it terribly, and wondering where oh where will i next find the closest thing to holiness in my everyday?
Things You Didn’t Put on Your Résumé
by Joyce Sutphen
How often you got up in the middle of the night
when one of your children had a bad dream,
and sometimes you woke because you thought
you heard a cry but they were all sleeping,
so you stood in the moonlight just listening
to their breathing, and you didn’t mention
that you were an expert at putting toothpaste
on tiny toothbrushes and bending down to wiggle
the toothbrush ten times on each tooth while
you sang the words to songs from Annie, and
who would suspect that you know the fingerings
to the songs in the first four books of the Suzuki
Violin Method and that you can do the voices
of Pooh and Piglet especially well, though
your absolute favorite thing to read out loud is Bedtime for Frances and that you picked
up your way of reading it from Glynnis Johns,
and it is, now that you think of it, rather impressive
that you read all of Narnia and all of the Ring Trilogy
(and others too many to mention here) to them
before they went to bed and on the way out to
Yellowstone, which is another thing you don’t put
on the résumé: how you took them to the ocean
and the mountains and brought them safely home.
the little guy i love heads off to kindergarten (this was actually his “practice” walk to school): summer, 2006
i should have done this a long time ago. years ago. but, like many, many things in my life, i started late. was behind the average. way behind.
according to the centers for disease control, those fine governmental folk who track these things, the average maternal age for a second birth in the U.S. hovers just above 28. i was 44.7. i remember clearly the saturday afternoon when, knees shaking, i called my obstetrician to tell her the little white stick (aka home-pregnancy-checker gizmo) had just turned happy blue — i was, gulp, miraculously and against all odds and medical prognostications, “with child.” without taking a breath, my dear doctor rattled off the dreary stats: risk of miscarriage, 60 percent; risk of down syndrome, 1 in 32; risk of not surviving till the little bugger’s 18th birthday, 5.5 percent. (i’ve got 349 days to go….)
tell all that to the magnificent 8.0-pound baby boy born on august 8, 2001, at 3:22 in the morning, his big brother, father, and a phalanx of doctors and nurses (who’d rushed in the room when things got dicey) all in attendance. he and i plowed through every statistical obstacle strewn along the way. which is why his names, first and middle, mean “God’s gift,” (in greek), and “gift of God” (in hebrew). he was birthed — and named — in prayer upon prayer.
and now, all these stats-defying years later, said child is beginning his last year of high school this coming monday, which means this old house has entered official countdown mode. every step along the way, from now till the day we pack him up and drop him at some dormitory door, will come with modifier: “the last,” “the last,” “the last”….
what that means for me is that i dial up the savor knob, and even in the middle of a humdrum summer’s afternoon — while he’s ensconced in his little room at the turn in the stairs, and i’m chopping in the kitchen — i might just get a hankering to call up the stairs, and remind him for no reason whatsoever that i love him more than life. (to which he might moan “uh-huh” in humdrum reply.) i even find myself plucking inside-out shorts off the floor, smoothing rumpled sheets on his bed, and not minding one little bit because i know — full-well — that a year from now, i’d do anything to be able to pluck evidence of his presence off the bedroom floor.
i’ve lived — for the last seven years — with one foot in faraway-child mode, and one close as close could be. i know full well just how much that distance makes me ache. just the other morning, in faraway connecticut, i dried the tears as the shuttle pulled away from the curb and hauled me to the airport, my second-year law student disappearing behind the cars and trucks and light poles as the van turned the corner and i could see his broad shoulders no more.
like i said, i’m late to this. so late. plenty of my friends — from high school and from college — have long known grandmotherhood. know what it is to have the little rascals come for sleepovers. watch their firstborns cradle firstborns. not me. i’m still penciling in teacher conferences on my own calendar, making sure my rascal’s up and out of bed on the days the school bell rings.
i don’t know from empty nest. ours has not been empty in a quarter century. and we were married 27 years ago tomorrow. we mostly only know “nest accessorized with child.” come college shove-off next august, it’ll be the first time in 26 years that there won’t be another pair of feet clonking around the floorboards up the stairs. won’t be a soul to listen for as i lie there in the dark, awaiting the click of his key in the front door.
so until we get to that eery silence, that absence that’ll make this house an echo chamber, i’ll savor and savor and savor some more. my hunch is that i’ll be less cranky in this year to come. i’ll even relish smelly socks. and empty pie plates left overnight on the kitchen counter.
i know how absence feels. i know what it is to find myself in tears in the grocery aisle, because i’ve just reached for the something that i’d always thrown in the cart — but suddenly there’s no need anymore; the someone who always loved it is being fed by someone else now, someone in a college cafeteria. i remember full well how hard i tried to re-wire my brain, my being, to wrap my head around the notion that some kid i loved now dwelled hundreds of miles away, called home once on sunday nights in those first few months when he, too, was trying to find his place in this new equation called long-distance.
as always, i’m late to this. and i might be the oldest mama in his senior class. but gosh darn it, that only makes me wise enough to hold this year as if it’s the last. because, well, it is.
at the schoolhouse door: first day of kindergarten and a boy i love gets a shoulder squeeze from the very fine school principal.
how do you intend to savor this next whirl around the seasons?
a little honduran girl whose name, we think, is Yanela, photo by John Moore/Getty Images
i woke to the sound of heavens weeping. the percussive ping of rain against the windowpanes. rain that will not stop. tears that won’t be quelled. the skies have wept, it seems, all week. fitting soundtrack to this stretch of time, this dark moment in our history, when all our hearts are cried out, our spirits flagged, the air all but sucked from our lungs.
how did we get here? how did we become a nation where children — children and toddlers and babies, suckling babies — are ripped from a mother’s breast, are scooped up and off of dusty paths. a nation where this image of a little girl, whose name we’ve learned in yanela, stood and watched in fear and horror as her mother was frisked — then taken away — by a stranger. the terror on her face is what haunts me. haunts me in the darkness as i sink into sleep. haunts me as i wake, imagining her alone, wondering where in the world her mama went. why she is waking up, perhaps, under a shiny mylar blanket, in a room where the lights never go out. where it’s refrigerator cold on purpose. on purpose.
all week i’ve wanted nothing more than to leap on a plane, get to the border, and cradle babies, toddlers, children, teens. i wanted my nursing license to not be long expired. i wanted to exercise that whole soul of me that cannot bear to sit and watch one more minute. i clicked on donations, at a legal defense fund in south texas, intent on helping parents find their children.
none of it, none of it, feels like i am doing one iota to make the hate, the evil, go away. i pray for this chapter in history to end. i pray that we might elect someone whose soul is guided by those fine few things we believe in, certainly all those who gather at this table: decency, gentility, kindness, compassion, love. love as spelled out in the bible, the qur’an, the torah: love as you would be loved.
love as if you could try to imagine the hell of living in a country run by assault-rifle-toting gangs. love as if you knew what it was to have the threat of rape and kidnapping ever trailing you. as if you’d heard screams of terror in the night. as if you’d witnessed the vestiges of awful deaths played out on the sidewalks and the village square, right before your eyes. love as if you knew what it was to perch your toddler on your hip and set out across a desert, unrelenting sun beating down on you, dehydrating every cell of you and the little ones you love.
the little girl in the soul-searing image above, the little girl named yanela, she and her mama crossed the rio grande on a raft. a raft made of what i don’t know. was it chunks of wood strapped together? was it inflatable till it hit the sharp edge of a river rock? does it matter?
call me a cockeyed bleeding-heart kook. i’m no policy wonk, and i’ve no idea how to fix the immigration question. but i do know this: there is nowhere in any bible, any holy text, that says turn away the stranger at the border. rip the child from the mother’s breast — and then handcuff the mother for resisting the taking of her child.
i try mightily to imagine myself when either one of my boys was one or two or three or 12 — or now. if, for one minute, someone reached for them, in a posture of pulling them or me away, i’d kick and scream bloody hell. i’d try to muster superpowers, powers i know full well i do not have. and then, in defeat, i’d collapse. i’d rather never breathe again than be torn from my children.
i am responding as nearly any mother would, because every pore in my body knows what it is to be slipped into that sacred space of living and breathing, being consumed in every waking and slumbering moment by the whole protection and shielding of my child from whatever threat dares to come his way.
we all suffer when one among us suffers the unimaginable. and day after day we are witnessing the unimaginable.
dear holy God, God of mercy, deliver them, deliver us, all of us. deliver us from this evil. amen.
here’s wendell berry’s response to hell on earth. to his grandchildren who walked the holocaust museum on the day yitzhak rabin, who had been assassinated, was buried…
To my granddaughters who visited the Holocaust
Museum on the day of the burial of Yitzhak Rabin
Now you know the worst
we humans have to know
about ourselves, and I am sorry,
for I know that you will be afraid.
To those of our bodies given
without pity to be burned, I know
there is no answer
but loving one another,
even our enemies, and this is hard.
when a man of war becomes a man of peace,
he gives a light, divine
though it is also human.
When a man of peace is killed
by a man of war, he gives a light.
You do not have to walk in darkness.
If you will have the courage for love,
you may walk in light. It will be
the light of those who have suffered
for peace. It will be
~ Wendell Berry ~
(A Timbered Choir)
how do you find a way forward?
i’d be remiss if i didn’t whisper happy blessed birthday to my firstborn, who marks his first quarter century today. it is the enormity of my love for him that makes it so crushing to even imagine someone trying to take him away from me, at any moment in his existence. he is my most profound blessing, and my joy without end…..