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Category: motherhood

prayer for the road

law school route

i awoke in the night, weaving the threads of my prayer for the road. 

when the car is packed with the last few things — the ones you only think of as you ramble through the last few hours before buckling the seat belts, checking the rear view mirror, asking yourself if you really did remember to turn off the stove, and lock the front door — you might bow down your head. sometimes, you drop to your rickety knees (or i do, anyway, carefully placing a pillow under the one that especially creaks).

there’s never been a road trip from this old house, nor hardly a medium-long trip to anywhere, even a far-flung soccer field, in which we don’t launch into our prayer that always begins, “holy garden angels protect us.” it’s not that we endow the patron saints of delphinium and hydrangea with any particular highway powers, it’s that long long ago, when someone’s ears were just beginning to parse the garble of vowels and consonants that tumbled from our mouths, he was certain that’s precisely what we were saying. as happens, it stuck. 23 years later, it’s the garden angels who get our road-trip salutation.

that might be the prayer i pray aloud, the heartfelt benediction in lickety-split tempo, not unlike the sprinkling of holy water across a crowd, one last certainty between reverse and drive, but the one that i will murmur all day long, it’s coming from a deeper place, a place that’s been keeping watch, a place that measures growth in fractions of a decimal, when need be, and knows full well when thresholds are being high-hurdled.

it’s the soul of the child i love that i consider my most essential watch. soul, as i sometimes define it, is a weave of heart and hope, of dreams launched and shattered pieces glued back together, the repair becoming the strong point. the repair, the place where resonant lessons are certain to be found.

and so the boy i love — a man now, to be certain — he’s off to law school at the crack of dawn tomorrow. we’re driving him there, all of us. settling him into his grown-up apartment, poking around the landscape, learning about this place, this old new england town, that he’ll call home.

and i will blanket him in the whispered words of the prayer, the motherprayer, that i’ve been weaving all his life. i will pray for solid footing, for a feeling of belonging, being embraced for who he is, and what he brings to any conversation (for what mother doesn’t pray that her child feels whole amid the current, not shoved to margins, the periphery of ill-fit diminishment?).

i will pray for laughter to animate his hours, because deep in the core of study, there is always room for the spray of great good humor, for the gleam that flashes from his eyes, because hilarity is among his strongest suits. and laughter, i’ve long believed, is the bellow of the angels here among us.

i will pray for sacred moments to graze his consciousness, for him to feel a sense of having been touched by the hand of the Divine, to gather up those daily beads of deep-down knowing that he is not alone, he is held in heaven’s light. i will pray for gentle kindness, for those who cross his path to stitch his hours with that unifying softness, the one that reminds we’re all in this, this daily grind toward tiny triumphs, we’re in it together. compatriots on the dusty road of living.

i’ll pray that the pitch of the trails he climbs is within his stride, will stretch him, strengthen his resilience, build capacities. and that the vista from the summits will fill his lungs, charge his heart, give him just the blast he needs to set out again. to take the climb up another notch.

i’ll pray that every once in a while there’s a victory so sweet he can cup it in his hands, hold it, savor it.

i can hardly bear to pray that when the heartbreak comes — and it will come, in varied doses and degrees — he is held and wrapped in arms and heart and love that temper crushing blows, that extract the sting, that salve the wounds and set him on his way again.

i pray, i suppose, that all his life, and certainly on this adventure just ahead, he lives and breathes with the full armament of undying love that i’ve been breathing into him, believing into him, since long before the day he was born, and cradled in my arms.

go with God, sweet scholar. go always always with the God of Purest Love.

xoxox, mommo

that’s my prayer for firstborn, or at least it’s today’s rendition. i never seem to run out of prayers for him. i live and breathe them.

no need to answer, but i wonder what might be the prayer you pray as you set out on today’s adventures?

goodbyes give me wobbles

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my sweet boy on his last official night in chicago: one last walk home.

goodbyes have always been bumpy for me. the first one i remember was me sitting on the concrete stoop in a garage in bloomfield hills, michigan. my papa had just pulled his turquoise blue ford falcon out of the slot where he parked, and was backing down the driveway. i was folded into a crouch on the stoop, swallowing back whole mouthfuls of tears.

i hated sunday nights when he drove away.

but he did so, every sunday night for six months. which, when you’re five, feels like forever and ever. he had a big job in a faraway place — chicago. and we hadn’t moved yet. so the time from sunday to friday night, when he’d pull back into the slot in the garage, open the door and bound into the house with all his dad-ness, it was as hollow a canyon as i’d ever known. on sunday nights, it seemed like we might never get to friday.

that early wiring, deep in the goodbyes department of my brain, it must have set me up for a lifetime of sparks firing, little explosions going off, when goodbyes were in the offing. because i’ve never gotten used to watching the people i love fade into the distance. certainly never gotten good at it.

and here i am smack dab in the middle of a big one. not the biggest ever. not the biggest i could imagine (for heaven’s sake, no one yet has invented a way to send a kid off to mars for ever and ever). but in the big-goodbye department, sending your kid halfway across the country, sending him off to law school, serious law school, knowing he likely won’t be back, not to live anyway, after two sweet sweet years that unfolded practically under your nose, well it’s big enough to give me wobbles.

the moving van is pulling up to his downtown apartment any minute. the texts are pinging at me even as i sit here typing: just took the sheets off the mattress, should i do a quick wash and dry before the movers take the last box? what about the pillows, bring in the car or load on the truck? hangers?

even from 14 miles away, i seem to be the answer mama. (and sure as could be, there’s a certain genre of question that to this day prompts me to dial my mama, certain she’s the repository of those things that mamas just know.)

we’re buffering this goodbye with one last week in which he’ll sleep here again. soon as our beloved friend jani, from germany, moves out, i’ll quick-change the sheets, and in will move the impending lawyer. (funny, even though he’s heading to law school, i’ve never before thought of him as a lawyer. law student, yes, but how in the world could i be old enough to be the mother of a lawyer?) then we’ll all pile in the old wagon, and point it east toward connecticut. which is where we’ll drop him off, help unpack piles and piles of boxes, then drive westward with one hollowed-out seat in the front, and plenty of tears in the back.

this goodbye is different, is sweeter, perhaps, than the one when we dropped him off at college, and he needed to figure out for the very first time who he was in the world without us in the shadows. this time, six years later, he has a pretty good sense of who he is, and a pretty good sense that we’ve figured out just where to stand in his life, close enough to always always listen, but not so close that all the moves aren’t his. he knows he’s stepping onto steep terrain, but i think — i pray — he knows he can make the climb.

he’s decidedly a grownup. moving into his first grownup apartment. complete with umbrella stand, i’ll have you know. a lovely one of blue-and-white porcelain, not unlike the one that stands sentry by our front door, one of several nods he’s making to the house where he grew up. bringing us with him, in some small way, even if only in the pot that will hold his drippy umbrellas.

last night, when i swung by his apartment to pick up one last load being shuffled to here, he decided to hop in the car as well. because, as usual, we were deep in conversation and he didn’t want it to end. and besides, he said, he felt like taking a walk. so we drove about eight miles north, and i dropped him off at an el stop, and he promised he’d only walk half of the way. but at midnight last night he was still walking along chicago’s lakefront, soaking up the city that birthed him, breathing deep all that he’s learned since he arrived on the scene 24 years ago.

he sent me this:

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that sparkling city along the lake, it will always be his. always, always be home. and we will always, always, always, welcome him back. once we get through this next round of goodbyes.

are goodbyes hard for you? 

and happy blessed bastille day birthday to my beloved across-the-way. xoxoxo

oh, it matters

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a nest that tumbled from my pine trees the other morning, and the speckled egg of the white-crowned sparrow who’d so diligently constructed the breathtaking weave of stick and leaf and, for a dash of birdly pizazz, the cellophane strip.

if there is one thing i know, if there is one thing i’ve been breathing for nearly 24 years, plus the eight months that preceded, the eight months from the moment i saw the little white ultrasound dot blinking and blinking with blessed assurance, it is this: mothering matters. life-and-death matters. whole-or-empty matters.

mothering matters in those hours when someone you love is at the end, the very end, of his or her rope. when that someone is near despondent with hopelessness. or maybe just burning with fever.

mothering matters, too, in all the in-between times. the barely noticed times. the i-remember-you-love-this-jelly-more-than-the-other-kind times. the you-missed-the-bus-again-?-!-! times; oh-sure-i’ll-drive-you times…

to mother, in the way that i mean, is to become the vessel that your child, your someone who loves you, needs. not in a hollowed-out i’m-nothing sort of a way. but in a mighty, i’ll-be-what-you-need, i’ll-be-whatever-you-need sort of a way. or i’ll try anyway.

it is to be living, breathing empathy.

empathy, my etymology friends tell me, is a relatively new word, one coined just after the turn of the 20th century, in 1908, drawn from the german, from Einfühlung, a word coined by a german philosopher, to mean “in + feeling” as a translation of greek empatheia “passion, state of emotion,” from the assimilated form of en “in” + pathos “feeling.”

to mother, my friend the deeply soulful writer katrina kenison says, “is to be fully present for another, in a spiritual sense.”

can you even begin to imagine the job description?

try this: must be willing, for the duration, to cradle against the harshest winds, cruel winds. must be alert to cries in the night. and ones at the end of long-distance phone lines. must have basic first-aid skills (kisses to cuts and bumps, required). must be willing to lie, wide-eyed and heavy-hearted, for long hours, sometimes from midnight till daybreak. might be skilled at celebrating small triumphs, ones that no one else might notice, but you know because you’ve been listening and watching, and you’ve seen how steep was the path your loved one was climbing. must let go — not of the heart, but of the everyday choices. must watch make mistakes. must try not to scold (scolding, a verb i grew up with does nothing but chafe at the soul, nip at the bud of the blossoming beautiful child). must forgive. yourself and your someone you love.

i could go on. i will go on. for the rest of my days as i keep close watch on this masterful, mystical art of mothering.

i’m struck, often, and saddened, at how dismissed mothering can sometimes be. in a world of power suits, apron strings were relegated to the back of the pantry. even though every one of us knows how deep a blessing it is to be mothered by a full-throttle motherer, one who deftly knows when to hit the gas and when to let up — when to be the the hand at the small of the back and when to stand quietly off in the wings (whispering whole-hearted incantations the whole while) — i think we sometimes forget — as a society — the power and magnitude of mothering. we forget, perhaps, how deeply this world needs what we know, what we do, endlessly and tirelessly.

a few weeks ago, i was out and about talking about motherprayer, the book i birthed last month, and a lovely woman, a woman with two grown daughters, raised her hand, and recounted that just that very afternoon, she’d been talking to one of her daughters, and she’d lamented the fact that she’d “never done anything important” with her life. but, then, she said, sitting and listening to what we’d been saying about mothering, it had just dawned on her that maybe, after all, she had done something important. maybe raising two beautiful daughters, who in kind were raising beautiful children, maybe — it dawned on her — she had done something important indeed.

oh my.

it was all i could do to not leap from where i was standing, and enfold her in a hallelujah squeeze of enlightenment. so, instead, i swallowed the lump in my throat, and stood there marveling at what she’d just realized.

and, now on this second friday in may, here we are on the brink of the day when, for one short whirl of the sun, we hold mothering up to the light. my prayer, this day and every day, is that we catch a glimpse, a deep glimpse, of its glories. that we think deep and hard about the difference that motherlove made in our lives, how it allowed us to catch the updraft, how it dried our tears and set us on our way.  how it always, always listened. how maybe it whispered, every once in a while, “you are so beautiful.”

your motherlove might not have come from your mother. but, surely, there was someone somewhere who loved as a mother loves. and you learned, perhaps, to love in that way.

and so it continues, the blessed and glorious love like no other: motherlove, stitched with courage, shimmering with radiant light. brave, raw, messy, ever beautiful.

to every motherer everywhere, may you be wrapped in pure blessing. today, tomorrow, and every day after.

with all my love, b.

what would you add to the job description, the mothering job, i mean?

for the whimsy of it, here’s a little video my beautiful publisher, Abingdon Press, made. it’s me reading an essay from Motherprayer, and it’s the one in which i make the case for celebrating mothering, the verb, and not just mothers per se. it’s making the case that it’s the particular art of loving, one that belongs to anyone who mothers, that is so deeply worthy of a national holiday. It’s All About the -ing

i’m dashing to take my little guy to school, so i’ll check soon as i’m home to make sure all is in working order……

and a happy blessed birthday to one of the most glorious motherers i know, our very own lamcal, who is magnificent and a profile in pure mother courage. 

fallen nest and egg

little nest, and fallen egg, brought inside for safe keeping. and beholding. and honoring.

 

the empty room: gulp.

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it didn’t take long to hit us. once the sun went down, and the stars turned on. once two, not three, places were set at the old kitchen table. once we climbed the stairs and rounded the corner, spied the empty room.

empty, as in the boy who sleeps there was gone for a few days. empty, as in he made the bed before he whirled off to the airport (a sure sign of something unusual astir).

i heard both of us groan, the deep-down guttural sound you make when something feels strange. as we stood side-by-side brushing our teeth, i saw the look on both of our faces in the bathroom mirror: haunted.

we were both glancing into the not-too-distant, just-around-the-bend, two years-and-four-months from now. when the kid, God willing, will be off in college. the sweet boy who every night bounds into our room, in the dark, no matter the hour, whenever he’s finally calling it quits before sleep, and, every blessed night, he plops a kiss on my head, throws his gangly arms around whatever part of my sheets and limbs he can find, there in the dark.

how in the world will we manage, without his sweet animations 24-7? what in the world do you do with a house that’s missing its most precious cargo?

we’ve been at this, the other grownup and i, at this experiment in parenting, for nearly 24 years. had one babe then another fully occupying every inch of this house and our hearts. and last night, for the very first time, we both felt the hollowness up around the bend.

i didn’t quite know when i married the man i love just how much this fathering would melt him, would deepen him, would make him take so seriously the care and instruction of fine men in the making. i should have known — the man i love had perhaps the dearest father known to humankind, a man whose attentions on his children were deep and pure and unfailing.

one of the first clues that the man i married might take on uncharted dimensions was the night, weeks shy of our first labor and delivery, when he rolled my direction and announced to anyone listening: you’re not going to recognize me; i’ll be turning to mush (or something very much along those lines. i was not taking notes in the dark).

and so it’s been. the man practically goes weak in the knees for his boys. and ever since the little one came along, eight years after the first, a good four years after we were told that no more babes would ever come tumbling from the heavens, well, he’s kept his eyes on that prize like nobody’s business.

sometimes, in the thick of growing kids, when every few minutes you’re running this way or that, worrying about fevers and flus, tryouts and tests, you almost forget that some day the chapter will close. those kids’ll up and move out. pack their bags, wave goodbye, and launch their own sweet lives.

it’s not that we’re clueless, and it’s not for lack of evidence — all around us, seeing as we’re on the, um, older end of the parenting scale, folks we know and love are singing the empty nest song. we’ve been told — by reliable sources — that these people we birthed will perhaps marry, have kids of their own, turn us into grandmama and grandpapa. and having sent one off to college, and soon off to law school, we’re somewhat versed in long-distance parenting.

it’s just that — oh, my — it hit us like 10 tons of bricks last night that we could soon be dwelling in a house that’s 10 sizes too big. a house that’ll feel like an old pair of jeans, slid down around our ankles, because they don’t fit anymore. we might need walkie-talkies to holler from one room to the next, since our intermediary messengers will no longer be here to relay the word (as in, “mom says there’s smoke coming out of the oven!”).

thank God we get these limited-edition previews, those signs from the heavens that life is about to change, and change rather dramatically. it sank in with a thud last night, and now that wisp of what’s-to-come might begin to lurch around deep down inside, where we do all our growing, our getting ready for the transformation that’s peeking over the horizon.

he’ll be home sunday night, that sweet kid now romping through cambridge, mass., 02138, his home away from home, the global village where he’s certain he left a chunk of his heart. by then, perhaps, i’ll gather a stash of brochures from the college just down the lane — the one that might break me in slowly to this notion of deep empty nesting.

in the story of your life how did you find a way to adjust to the day-to-day absence of someone you loved? or is it an ache that still hurts?

two housekeepings: i’d thought i might write a blessing today for that soon-to-be-birthed work of my heart, Motherprayer: Lessons in Loving, but instead i was walloped by that empty bedroom above — and felt the need to try to capture the moment in words. i’ll likely send out a special blessing on tuesday, the official publication date of the book with the lovely nest on the cover. and an update on bravery: i found out this week that mustering courage, doing the thing that wobbles your knees, sometimes makes your wildest dream come true. details to come in the very near future.  

redlining: when words queue up in the wings

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a peek at the cover…

it’s those two little eggs. they’re what bring me to tears. well, that and the fact that i’ve not slept too much this whole last week. it’s what happens when you’re redlining. which, in the world of books with your name on the cover, means you are weighing every last alphabet letter, typing, trying words on for size. hitting delete (a lot of hitting delete), then typing some more. you’re nearing the end.

i’d been waiting and waiting. for months. and then, with not even a whisper, not even a ping (i was at a funeral, and my phone was turned off), the whole 240-some pages slid in under the so-called transom (as if a laptop came with an office door, an opaque glass door, with your name etched on the face, and a doorknob that creaked when you turned it, as back in the movies and sitcoms of a whole other era).

at first, i was trembling too much to peek. i knew that this round — the one after your words have been wrung through the copy-edit machine, after the production editor puts her very fine eye to every last comma and dash, and all the words in between — this round weighed more than the others in the editing room. the closer you get to the end, the closer you get to the day the big box arrives, when you pull back the tape, and stare at the stacks, the ones with your words, covered and bound, the more it all weighs.

i quelled my butterflies. all but stuffed them back in the jar where they belong, the one with the air holes punched in the lid. and then i dove in.

fullsizerender-2i’m done with round one, the round where you read on the screen. now i move onto round two, the one where you read from pages and pages, actual paper. actual trees, felled for the service of smoothing, and fixing, and hoisting up line after line, as many notches as my brain and my heart and imagination can muster.fullsizerender

which means my brain cells are thirsty for coffee. and my muscles and bones are aching for sleep. and while i practice my finger-stretching exercises, the warmups for another day with the red pen and keyboard, i figured i’d give you a peek at the cover. i’d had no idea it had slid off the art director’s drafting table. certainly no idea it was over on amazon, where, with the click of a button, you too can take a close look.

you can even read how they describe it, those folks who do the describing:

Barbara Mahany writes, “Mothering was my crash course in love. Love of the sort I call Divine. Love in the way we yearn to be loved: Without end. Without question. Without giving in to exhaustion. Love with a big and boundless heart. Love with eyes and ears wide open. Love even when it’s not so easy.”

In Motherprayer, Mahany generously shares personal love letters on the mysteries and gifts of mothering, interspersed with family recipes and gentle essays, all offering beautiful lessons in how to love, and how to love breathtakingly. In her bracingly honest style, Mahany lifts up the everyday—the hard, the glorious, the laughter, and the tears—and invites readers to pay attention, cradle our loved ones in prayer, and see the sacred lessons in loving.

which is why i’d better get back to the redline. which is why i nearly toppled off my chair the day i stumbled onto those words. i was minding my business, one fine afternoon, just clicking around on the keyboard, in that way that we do now, when suddenly one click led to another, and there it was: my next little book, idling on amazon. awaiting its turn in the racks. the book-peddling racks.

so while i head off to try out some verbs, try to find ones with sinew and heft, i’ll leave you here with a promise: i’ll tuck my whole heart, and all of my soul, into the redlining to come. and the book that comes very soon after. the book that will land just in time for mothering day. the book you’ll find at the bookstore next april.

i’m writing a book for the very best reason: for both of my boys (those two little eggs in the palest of blues up above), so they’ll know, so they can hold in their hands, someday maybe even read, the record of just how deeply they were loved. and the few things i learned along the way.

redlined, of course.

if you wrote a book, what would you put on the cover?

and as long as we’re in the book bin today, why not mention that my first book, Slowing Time, was read aloud back in the spring by a lovely woman in Nashville, and recorded, made into an audible book. i have five copies that i’m happy to give away. if you’d like a book-on-tape, if you’d like Slowing Time, with a wee bit of buttery twang, just plop a comment down below, and the first five someones who raise their sweet hand, will get an audible copy. how’s that for a friday morning adventure in listening? (my dear publisher has wanted me to do this for months, but i’ve, um, been a bit shy.)

because i love to give glories where glories are due, i am leaping off my chair to holler my lungs out in thanks to nancy watkins, the brilliant longtime chicago tribune editor, who was employed to copy edit Motherprayer (and thus made my wildest dreams come true), and the astoundingly fastidious and kind and word-perfect susan cornell, the production editor at Abingdon Press, who is shepherding each and every page to the printing press. there’s a dream team on this book, and page after page, i find myself sighing at their utter perfection. consider me enchanted. blessings to both of you. xoxox

revisions

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the sentences don’t go to sleep when i do. they follow me to bed. romp while i flutter closed my eyes. pay no attention as i turn down the dial, try to quell their insistent chatter. they carry on merrily, words slithering here and there. one taking a bow, an exit bow, another squeezing in its place on the stage. whole sinewy chains of words, traveling en masse — some sort of compound-complex-intricate dangler, something i’m sure my third-grade teacher warned me never to try without trapeze — they migrate across the page. appear out of nowhere. demand a splot of real estate somewhere on the vast black-and-white tableau.

that’s how it is when you’re up to your neck in what are called revisions, an episodic literary state of being, from which there’s no escape.

you all but nibble tables-of-contents for breakfast. you inhale paragraphs, exhale footnotes. you slow the pumping of your heart to near stand-still (a dangerous state of affairs, to be sure) as you ponder permissions, and zap off begging sorts of notes to those whose words you’re so hoping you can borrow, set off with frilly quote marks that trumpet, “these lovely words came from minds far richer than mine.”

your days and nights are a melee of “delete,” followed frantically by “command-z,” every writer’s salvation keys, the ones that undo whatever ding-dong doozie you’ve just done. i’ve been known to “command-z” for unsightly spells, whole minutes it might seem, so grateful all the while to that unknown programmer who long ago thought to provide mere typers with escape hatch. if only sin and cruelty could so swiftly be erased, undone, made to disappear. but isn’t that why catholics have confession booths?

what i’m revising — day in and day out, and late into the nights — is my next go at this semi-livelihood i’ve taken up, the one in which you find your name spelled out in pretty letters across the front cover of a stash of pages, pages that slide in and out of bookshelves. more simply put, a book is what i’m up to. and what i’m writing — er, revising — is a book i might not have mentioned here, not by name i’m fairly certain.

it’s called motherprayer: lessons in loving, and my friends at abingdon press are once again behind it. if all goes according to plan, and believe you me, i’ll do my part, it’ll land in a big squat box on my doorstep in a mere 10 months, next march to be precise.

it’s a book i’ve been writing for years and years. it’s a book, the one book, i’ve long felt most pulled to publish. it’s the one stash of writing i want to leave behind. and by leave behind, i don’t mean dropped off at the side of a curb, or abandoned, only to crumple into so much flaky yellowed dust. i mean these are words i hope and pray might be left in the hands — or on the bookshelves — of my boys. it’s a stack of love letters, really. ones that began even before here, before the chair was the place where i turned with my truest, tenderest, unpracticed whisperings.

all my life the one thing i’ve always done is write love letters. it’s the medium i know best. it’s what turned my life from nursing to newspapering, really. it was a love letter to my papa that started it. the one they read at his funeral, the one that made the ad man say, “kid, you can write.” what he meant was: “kid, you can write a love letter. you can uncork a heart, and put words to what’s spurting out, spewing merrily and frothily.”

if i pause to think about it, and suddenly i am, it’s how i found my way to that long, lean bespectacled architecture critic with whom i spend my life. and it’s how i made so many friends in high school — my nightly mission, one that shoved aside all homework, was to sit and pen notes to friends who were aching, lost, or lonely; and sometimes simply happy.  i’m pretty sure my love letters are what made me my high school’s unlikely homecoming queen.

but there has never been a love letter that mattered so much as the ones i’ve penned for my boys. the ones i’ve penned here, too, when i hold up to the light some moment, some fraction of time, some quandary or conundrum, some twist or turn in the plot that leaves me breathless, or in tears. and, so often, throwing up my arms to the heavens, turning pleas to prayers, “dear God, show me the way….” “dear God, stitch this shattered heart….” “dear Holy God, thank you…”

it’s motherprayer.

and for the life of me, i can’t seem to shake my sense that it’s here, in these front lines of the mother-child tangle, that so much blessed wisdom pulses. and so i keep close watch, i plumb the depths, i poke around — year after year, chapter upon chapter.

which is how i came to gather up a stash — each in the form of an essay, a chance to catch the fleeting moment, some crucible of childhood and motherhood — and why i’ve culled and tossed, boiled down the lot to the ones that just might hold a glimmer of the elusive truths we’re after.

it’s motherprayer, a love story. one i’ve been deeply writing for the last quarter century.

what’s your best medium, the one in which your heart and soul most deeply feel the muse? 

 

he gave us a year: this mama will never forget

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the first inkling came a year ago december. it was a bitter cold sunday, and the voice on the line was one that had been making my heart skip since the first time i heard it. the words that followed were these: “mommo, i’ve been thinking. i want to do something meaningful in the year between college and law school, and i can’t think of anything more meaningful than being there for tedd. i think i’ll come home for a year.”

such is the sound of wishes come true. of prayer you hadn’t even put to words, come tumbling true. a mama’s wildest hope.

so, back on a sultry june afternoon, the old black sedan pulled down the alley. out spilled a boy and a thousand some boxes. a childhood bedroom was duly re-ordered. carpet was ditched; floorboards, exposed. old books, the books of a boyhood, were pulled and tossed in a box. college tomes took their place. jobs were procured, the ones that would keep him busy by day. by night, he made his place at the side of the much younger brother, the brother just finding his way into high school, a high school with corridors known to be steep.

DSCF1307for one whole year, a year now gliding toward its close, big brother and little have entwined their hearts a little bit closer. there’ve been late-night runs for grilled cheese. and sartorial counsel unfurled at the bathroom door. there’ve been soccer goals saved in front of the cheering — and very proud — older brother. and shoulder-to-shoulder talks on the couch, in the car, on the all-night airplane ride.

it was into his big brother’s arms that the little one fell the morning our old cat died. the two of them crying, together. one of them wailing, “he was our third brother.” both of them wholly understanding the depth of that truth.

he was here for his brother, yes, but he was here, too, for the whole of us — night after night, as we sat, held hands, and whispered a prayer before picking up forks. not one single dinner for four did i ever take for granted. each one felt sacred. felt numbered.

he was here in this unforgettable year, this year of loss as much as gain. he was here the day we got word that his grandpa had died; that very night, he stood by the side of his papa, both wrapped in their prayer shawls, at synagogue, on the eve of the most solemn day of atonement. he was there, to hold his father’s elbow during the hebrew prayer of mourning. he was there to notice the tear that spilled from his father’s eye. i was too. i saw and felt with my whole soul the presence of father and son standing shoulder-to-shoulder, prayer shawl-to-prayer shawl, in the hour of that father’s deepest grief.

he was here, too, when friend after friend said goodbye before dying, in this year of hard loss. he was here to wrap his arm, and his laughter, around the grieving widower who has spent most every weekend with all of us, sopping up the pieces of his deeply shattered heart.

he was here for me, his old mama. the one who will never tire of long talks at the side of his bed, or chopping in sync at the kitchen counter. i never even minded the piles of laundry, knowing with each pair of boxers i folded that it was a task that wouldn’t last. i considered it something akin to charming to iron old shirts, to track down orphaned socks.

the what’s-next isn’t quite worked out. but the calls are out. the interviews, scheduled. a move will be in the mix. i know that. i’ve always known that.

which is what made this year the most priceless gift i could have imagined. a mother’s gift beyond measure.

it was all a blessing. all wholly unexpected. all counter to cultural norms that these days send kids sailing post college. he came home. he didn’t mind — not so much anyway — the questions from neighbors, the ones who might have looked askance at a kid whose only post-college option appeared to be a return to the roost. we knew otherwise. we knew the whole time.

he’d come home for one reason only: love.

he’d come home for the rare and breathtaking gift of stitching together two hearts. hearts born eight years apart. hearts whose plots on the lifeline had necessarily thrown them into parallel orbits — when one was learning to drive, the other was learning to read. when one was finding his way through a college quad, the other was starting out middle school. but this year — one starting high school, one a man of the world and not too old to remember well the poignant trials of this particular high school — there was much deepening to be done. they could laugh at each other’s jokes. play each other’s silly screen games. bolster each other’s hearts when either one was pummeled. photo

what they grew, over the shifting of seasons, over late nights and not-so-early mornings, was a brotherly love to last a lifetime.

i often flash forward in my mind’s eye, imagine them calling each other in the long years ahead. i imagine their faces, lined with deepening grooves, the ones that come from living. i imagine their manly voices, calling long-distance — just to laugh, simply to celebrate, to be the front line in each other’s rescue squad.

i once feared that the older one — long the only one — would be all alone after we’d gone. i know now, i pray now, that they’ll long have each other’s company — shared stories, shared love, unbreakable bond.

and so, on the brink of that second sunday in may that honors motherhood, i find myself sated. i need no toast points ferried to bed. no violets clumped in a vase. i don’t even need a hand-drawn card. i’ve lived and breathed a year i never expected. in the short story of my life there will always be this one radiant whirl around the sun.

and that’s more than i’d ever have dreamed when someone once showed me the flickering spot on the ultrasound, the one they said was his heart, very much alive. the one that ever since has quickened the pulse of my own. my very own metronome, come home, all in the name of pure love.

happy blessed day of mothering, to all who mother in the infinite ways of that certain brand of loving. to my own mama, and the mother of my heart, the one i was gifted through marriage. may your days be filled with the knowing that the children you birthed simply adore you. and may the memory of the mamas who birthed you, and loved you, fill your hearts on this day of honoring a mama’s rare love.    

what one gift do you wish for, what one unimaginable gift? or have you found it already?

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?

when all else fails…turn to page 200

mac n cheese

for two decades now, ever since may of 1995 when i was plotting my firstborn’s second birthday fete, and i flipped open the pages of my monthly infusion of delicious, gourmet magazine — before it was ruth reichl’s gourmet magazine, before it was defunct, folded into the crypt of long-gone magazines, magazines that shaped our culture and then withered and died, the sad fate of so much of what’s printed in ink on the page — page 200, the page where the binding is coming unglued, the page crusted with splatters of roux, it’s been my no-fail, last-ditch, best-hope-of-filling-a-hole-in-a-heart-by-way-of-the-belly cookery map.

so it was yesterday, a crisp october day, when the sun poured in as if from a flask of molasses, so it was on a day when the boy who’d loped from the car at the school house curb was a boy with a leaden heart. he had so much homework, was so worried about homework, that he’d decided to skip the end-of-the-season soccer gorge on pasta and pizza. instead of hanging with friends, he’d decided he should come home straight after practice.

to make matters a tad bit worse, i wouldn’t be home when he got there. i try hard to keep my nights away to a serious minimum, but last night was a night i’d promised to be elsewhere, in a dim-lit watering hole and song hall, actually, reading words from a page for a very fine purpose, all to raise funds for a most noble cause.

i’m always torn when tugged away from my boys. and at the end of this week, this week when the lights in the kitchen never went out before midnight, because a young soccer player was trying hard to finish all of his homework, often accompanied by the sadness that lingers in our house, it was especially hard to be away.

so i reached for my holy salvation: the plainly-named “Baked Macaroni and Cheese,” ala page 200. it’s a cheesy-buttery bath stirred round and through tubes of wide-mouthed pasta, each tube filling with ooze as much as being wrapped in it. it vies, in our house, with bread pudding, as the neck-and-neck nos. 1 and 2 comforts on a spoon.

over the years, the making it — for me, anyway — is as soothing as it must be for my boys to polish it off in one sitting. assembling its components — the butter, the cheddar, the flour, the milk, the salt, paprika, bread crumbs, and parmesan shavings to finish it off — i slip into priestess mode. my old black cookstove — an industrial-grade contraption that somehow slipped into this old house in the 1970s, never to be removed — is my altar.

i begin my incantations and prestidigitations right there, where the flame is cranked, and the concoctions in my pots begin to bubble, not unlike vats of heavenly potions. with the oven cranked to 375, the kitchen begins to warm. everything about this kitchen ritual is warming. soon, my old sweater is off, and as i stir i imagine my sweet boy coming home to find the big white ceramic souffle dish perched atop the stove, my hand-scribbled note just to the side.

is there a more certain way to say i love you than to have cooked all afternoon? to have reached for the cookery shelf and pulled out the one thing a kid asks for on those nights when his sleepy head hits the pillow but the worries won’t be extinguished?

because a big old vat of mac n’ cheese wasn’t enough, not on this particular day, in the thick of this particular passage, i pulled out the produce bin and piled a mound of apples atop the cutting board. i chopped honeycrisp and granny smith, i didn’t peel — why bother? — and i tumbled the slices into the pot, added a splash of honeycrisp cider, a shake or two of cinnamon, and once again, applied flame to the equation. wasn’t long till the whole house was swimming in eau de apple and buttery-cheese. even the cat ambled back in from the garden.

then i set the table. is there anything that says i was thinking of you quite so quietly, certainly, as coming home to a kitchen table that awaits you, that has your very own napkin and napkin ring at the place where you always sit?

it’s the rhythms we carve into the grain of the day, of the months and the years — simple rhythms, unadorned rhythms, nothing so fancy as a napkin and fork at a place that is yours, set by someone who thought about how it might be to come home harried, and worried, and tired to the bone — that makes coming home feel as if someone just handed you your oldest, comfiest slippers. and a fuzzy sweater to boot.

i’d left the stove light on, and the mac-and-cheese under a foil dome, as i slipped out the door and turned the key. then, not a block from home, i got a message: the soccer player had decided, after all, to skip coming home. he’d hang out with the soccer team, inhale store-bought pasta and delivery pizza.

such is a mama’s existence.

so much for stirring and chopping, in hot pursuit of healing a tattered heart.

but here’s the holy truth: i was the one whose heart was soothed in the long hours of love at the cookstove.

and, besides, mac-n-cheese cold makes for excellent bedtime snack. when the lights go out at midnight.

what’s your when-all-else-fails cookstove concoction?

the holy thing that got me to this moment

baby willie kissed by eileen murphy, leaving prentice to home sweet home…

prayers have been answered. and answered and answered. and, then, answered some more.

which pretty much defines the beginning, middle and end of this exercise in human devotion — in birthing and bonding and inevitably separating, though never completely, never every last cord to the heart — on this joyride called parenting. it surely explains what got us here to this holy moment: about to shuffle down a jetway to board a plane to fly through the heavens to land at the doorstep of one college graduation.

the latest prayer answered, the one i whispered as i rustled beneath my sheets yesterday morning, was this: “dear God, thank you for bringing them home safe and sound from their long and certainly liquid weekend at myrtle beach,” that romping ground of late for seniors in college who’ve finished their finals but not yet donned caps and gowns. thank you for keeping their tin can of a car safe on the highway for 14 some hours (each way), for keeping big rigs and 18-wheelers from slamming into their passenger doors or their windshields, or any one of those gory scenes that mothers of children on highways can picture so clearly, so vividly, so goosebumpingly.

the truest truth of parenthood, or at least the truest one for me, is that every stitch along this broadcloth of hope and faith and unwavering trust is one knotted with prayer.

from the instant someone back in that long-ago delivery room handed me that slippery, squirmy, wide-eyed babe, and then, not long after, pointed us toward the door to the big wide scary world beyond the hospital, i gulped and did the surest thing i could think of: i called on superpowers. of the highest elevations. i let rip a mighty prayer. insisted angels and saints, almighty God and Holy Mother Mary in all her maternal glories, swoop down and blanket us, point the everlasting way, whisper answers to my 9 gamillion questions — straight into my heart, the preferred route. and dare not take a coffee break.

because i knew there was no way i could make it all on my own.

if left to my own devices long, long ago — if i’d not had that lifeline of prayer, and the knowledge that in my darkest hours, in the hours when i had no answers, and barely a trace of faith in anything worldly, there was a great and tender palm of a hand (honestly, i’d put in for a whole flock of palms of hands) cradling me and my growing-up child — i’d still be cowering behind that hospital door. i might still be crumpled at the knees wondering how we’d make it out alive.

to parent — to take a fresh-from-the-womb floppy creation and teach him or her the few things you know, and the volumes you cram in along the way — is to stare down every imaginable detour and distraction, to slay the thousand dragons that taunt you in innumerable forms — the playground bully, the out-of-control coach, and the rule that will not bend, to name but three. (i suppose i shouldn’t forget my host of self-doubts and insecurities as perhaps the biggest dragons in the bunch.)

you see, i wouldn’t know how to do that — how to let the air out of ugliness, how to crack at the knees those monsters who romp in the night — without my blessed back-up squad: the angels and saints, the umpteen vigil lights and infinite vespers that are my hotline, my speed-dial, to God and assembled heavenly hosts.

one of the first things i learned when my kid went off to college — a steep climb of a first semester for me, not so for him — was that more than anything we’d stepped into the landscape of prayer. especially when your kid is 1,000 miles from home, and even you — hold-on-tight you — wouldn’t dream of calling him, oh, every hour on the quarter-hour.

i turned quickly to prayer. prayer was my safety net. the tight-woven web that kept me from tumbling into the dark. i remember how, shortly after dropping him off and flying soggily back to chicago, i found myself pulled from the great gothic tower where i typed every day, propelled down the sidewalk of north michigan avenue and into the catacombs of holy name cathedral. there, with the help of a not-so-helpful security guard, i knelt before the flickering expanse of battery-operated (egad!) prayer candles. i lit one right up, and then, in a flash of iPhone wizardry that soon became a habit, i texted a snapshot of the holy flame i’d kindled for my boy. vigil light, by virtue of wi-fi.

i can’t count the number of mornings i launched into daylight with prayers murmured before i flung back the sheets. i can’t tally the times i turned toward the east-northeast to pinpoint my prayers somewhere in the vicinity of the appropriate dot on the compass, and then let fly some litany of invocations, begging the heavens to be kind, to be gentle, to my faraway child.

as much as i prayed through the close-to-home years, i’d say i doubled the volume and depth in the long-distance years, the ones that in these modern-day times are more than likely to be our geographic realities.

the farther you get into motherhood, the less likely your kid will put up with what might be your preferred proximity — tagging along right close to his side. so, once the squirt up and grows, you’re left with a mama’s no. 1 stand-in: the invisible prayers unfurled from your heart and your tongue to the heavens above and beyond.

in the last four years, since that tear-sodden day when we dropped him alone on a green in the land of emily dickinson, it’s what’s gotten the boy i love — or, certainly, his mama — through eight rounds of final exams, umpteen close calls, countless hours rowing the icy connecticut river, one short tip across the atlantic pond, in and out of a few emergency rooms, and through a few late-night phone calls that stretched thinly — desperately — into the dawn.

as we step into the magical whirl of this weekend, when honors will be awarded and diplomas tucked in his once-little hand, as i stand back and marvel at this child who’s now a deeply fine man, as i dab away rivers of tears and a heart that’s frankly astounded, my every breath will be drawn in with a prayer, and let out with another.

i wouldn’t be here, and neither would he, i am certain, if not for the great hand of the glorious and good God who reached down and guides us each and every step of the way.

for this, i drop to my knees, in undying devotion for the one thing that got me to here: my deepest prayers answered.

and here we are, minutes from grabbing bags and dashing out the door. i’ve now put words to screen through every round of this kid’s graduations: eighth grade, high school, and, now, college. there will, god willing, be a law school graduation for my scholar child, the one who dreams of some day being a professor, or a federal judge. (he worked for a glorious such soul in the DC circuit appellate court last summer, and now has modeled his dreams on the eminently wise and humble and good-hearted justice.) i am burstingly filled with joy, with the deep knowledge that we’ve been so graced to arrive at this moment. for all of you who’ve loved us through the tight and narrow passageways, and who’ve whirled with us in the dances of hallelujah, thank you. you are as much a part of this equation as those angels and saints. in fact, you give form to angels here on earth. most especially, his two unwavering grandmas who are among the most devoted…

new trier crew bus to regatta

will and teddy. sigh.

a boy and his pupils....