pull up a chair

where wisdom gathers, poetry unfolds and divine light is sparked…

Category: motherlove

on kindness, kerouac, and tolstoy

leo tolstoy

i will be backing into this if i begin by quoting a russian intellectual and novelist. but so i begin.

Nothing can make our life, or the lives of other people, more beautiful than perpetual kindness.

Leo Tolstoy

the subject, once again and always, is kindness.

it was unknown to me, and perhaps little known more broadly, that at the turn of the 19th century leo tolstoy neared completion of what he considered an imperative life’s work. not anna karenina, not war and peace, not the death of ivan ilych. but rather something he considered more timeless, more lasting: “a wise thought for every day of the year, from the greatest philosophers of all times and all people,” as he described it.

or as cultural critic maria popova once put it, “to be human is to leap toward our highest moral potentialities, only to trip over the foibled actualities of our reflexive patterns. to be a good human is to keep leaping anyway.” tolstoy’s book, she wrote, was to be “a reliable springboard for these moral leaps.”

in the middle of his 55th year, in march of 1884, tolstoy had set out to read and reap from a circle of the greatest thinkers and spiritual leaders who had shed light on what was most crucial in living a good and righteous life. he dug deep across millennia and miles, reading epictetus, marcus aurelius, lao-tzu, buddha, pascal, the new testament — a reading list he deemed “necessary.”

it was to be his florilegium (a compilation of excerpts from other writings, “mashing up selected passages and connecting dots from existing texts to better illustrate a specific topic, doctrine, or idea,” writes popova. the word comes from the latin for “flower” and “gather;” a bouquet of curated wisdoms). tolstoy saw it as something of a roadmap, daily sign posts pointing the way toward “the Good Way of Life.” in a letter to his assistant, he explained his project thusly:

I know that it gives one great inner force, calmness, and happiness to communicate with such great thinkers as Socrates, Epictetus, Arnold, Parker. … They tell us about what is most important for humanity, about the meaning of life and about virtue. … I would like to create a book … in which I could tell a person about his life, and about the Good Way of Life.

he spent 17 years at it, and shortly after the birth of the 20th century, in 1902, he completed his manuscript, under the working title A Wise Thought for Every Day. two years later, it was published in russian, and nearly a century later, in 1997, it appeared in english translation, all 384 pages of it, under the title A Calendar of Wisdom: Daily Thoughts to Nourish the Soul, Written and Selected from the World’s Sacred Texts. for each day of the year, tolstoy plucked, or gathered, quotes by great thinkers, then added his own musings and connective tissue on the subject, with kindness as the sinew and spine of the book’s moral sensibility.

i bought the book yesterday, in the long hours after i had once again dropped my beloved husband at the curb of terminal 3 at o’hare airport, as he set off once again to race to his mother’s bedside, to honor her, to fill the hospice room with his prayer and his unending grace. in the serendipities of a long afternoon that turned into a longer night, maria popova, she of BrainPickings, the cultural compendium and literary candy counter, dropped in (to my email) with her musings on kindness, a heaven-sent subject in the hours of deep vigil i was keeping for my mother-in-law whose signature and lasting memory is exponential kindness.

i read this entry from tolstoy:

The kinder and the more thoughtful a person is, the more kindness he can find in other people.

Kindness enriches our life; with kindness mysterious things become clear, difficult things become easy, and dull things become cheerful.

i read this from jack kerouac:

Practice kindness all day to everybody and you will realize you’re already in heaven now.

and that’s when i decided i would not merely buy the book but practice it. every day. in honor of my beautiful, blessed mother-in-law who died in the wee hours of this morning, friday, july 2.

her memory will be a perpetual blessing, to me and to all who fall in the radiance of her kindness practiced each and every day.

ginny kamin made lives more beautiful by her practice of perpetual kindness.

“Nothing can make our life, or the lives of other people, more beautiful than perpetual kindness.” a life’s instruction, brought to you by leo tolstoy and one ginny kamin….imagine how you might live it today, one kindness at a time….

Portlandia

In which, for the first time in a year, a thousand firsts unfurl. Mostly, wrapping my arms around my firstborn, 1750 miles from where I spend most of my days…

It’s questionable whether sitting tucked in a dawn-lit corner in a faraway hotel, I can tap out too many hieroglyphics on this wee little keyboard, more fitting for the feet of an ant than for my fumbly fingers, but here I am, apparently so jazzed on the joy of watching my boys delight in each other’s company, not so adept at catching a night’s worth of zzzzz’s.

In this sweet swirl of days, so many frames have been packed in my brain, sleep has little room. There was the all-black-clad SWAT team rolling into downtown the night of the first anniversary of George Floyd’s death, when Portland once again exploded in protest with dumpster fires, fireworks hurled into the night, windows smashed, and graffiti strewn on block after block of marble, glass, or brick-walled storefronts. There are the endless miles of homeless camps on the sidewalks, spilling down embankments along the highways (and I mean right up to the shoulder of where cars race by at 70 mph), in the wells of dried-up public fountains, under the Chinese arch just outside this hip hotel outfitted with British soaps and sheets and “ethical organic” coffees to tuck into earthenware mugs inscribed, “99 problems. coffee ain’t one.” And, no, the juxtaposition, the cruel irony, doesn’t escape me. It’s a wrenching mix of utopia and dystopia here, and it seems to beg for answers to questions and conundrums that would vex a troop of MacArthur geniuses. But my firstborn is here for 16 months, and once my superpower shot kicked in and shielded me and all of us from the red-ringed invader, we strapped on our travel packs and made the trek to Stumptown.

Alongside the unsettling, there is wonder aplenty here, too, as the city seems to collect the curious, the kind, and the kooky. While I sip my ethical organic coffee and watch the sun come up, I’ll let my picture roll do the talking.

I’ve usually been a most reluctant traveler, a top-of-the-line homebody, one who frets in the days before departure about whether my tomato plants will survive without me, whether the pansies will droop, and in this case whether the wily skunk would move inside while we’re not watching. (Shawn the SkunkTrapper sent a text to let me know he was bringing in the infrared night-vision cameras he was borrowing from one of his fox-trapping jobs; I await word any minute now…)

But here I am, four days in, and relishing every adventure. Maybe in my doddering days, I will finally slay a few of the ghosts who’ve long vexed me. Travel can test us as much as it stretches us, and I’m in for the stretch, buoyed by the boys who animate my every heart beat.

Signing off from PDX. With love, always.

Anyone else out there a natural-born reluctant traveler? And if not, what words of enticement might you offer to those of us who’d do well to take a deep breath and put some miles on our hiking boots?

“Your love is a verb.”

the letter was addressed: “Dear Wise Matriarch.”

it was written inside a mother’s day card, the sort that might be plucked from a slot in the greeting card aisle of a corner drug store. if you were lucky enough to get to a drug store. or it might have been all that was left in a heap on a metal cart with rickety wheels that rolled past the cell of the north kern state prison where kerry baxter senior, who is serving 66 years to life in prison, convicted of second-degree murder, spends his days and his nights and his years. he never forgets mother’s day, or her birthday, says his mother, anita wills, who spends her life missing him fiercely, who waits for his every 60-second pre-paid collect phone call, and who has devoted her life to proclaiming and proving his innocence.

here’s what kerry wrote in his mother’s day card:

What God has intended for our mothers to embody, you have personified. I’m humbled by your examples of leadership, time after time. Your energy is a wellspring of endeavors to be carried to their accomplishments for the benefit of we who are in compromising conditions. I can attest firsthand that you have demonstrated how a love that is truly unconditional translates in this physical world. Your love is a verb. How precious you are. Thank you, profoundly, for the many lessons you have and do teach.

“that’s from my son. who’s in prison.” says anita looking up from the card, adding that when he was was sentenced in 2003 to 66 years to life that meant “i would never have seen my son as a free man.“ she goes on to say, in a new yorker documentary titled “On Mother’s Day,” that until kerry was sent to prison, family used to come every weekend. “he was our barbecue person. we spent the holidays together, thanksgiving, christmas, birthdays. after he was gone, it seemed like everybody stopped coming. everybody stopped coming after kerry went to jail.” in 2011, when kerry’s own son — anita’s grandson — was murdered, kerry couldn’t go to the funeral, so anita brought new urgencies to her exoneration efforts.

i can’t stop thinking about five words in kerry’s card: “Your love is a verb.”

when love is a verb. isn’t that the point? isn’t that — really — why we live? isn’t that the thing that just might make the difference between taking up oxygen during our stint here — however long that lasts — and bending the arc toward the love we all deep down dream of? 

haven’t there been a hundred hundred days when our eyelids fluttered open in the morning and right away the lead ball in our belly pounded hard against the walls of us, and before we wiggled a toe we were washed over in the weight of whatever it was that worried us, and weren’t the worries twice as heavy when they weren’t about us but rather someone we loved, maybe even someone we birthed, or have loved since right after birth, someone whose time on this great blue marble we’ve felt was ours to protect, to guide, to keep from falling into pitfalls, but when they stumbled or bloodied their knees we might have raced to reach out our hand, to be right there to let them know they didn’t need to climb out or up all alone, but that we’d bear as much of the weight, of the pulling from the depths, as we could bear. however much they were willing to let us pull. 

isn’t love — unfettered, unconstrained by our own agendas, selfless as selfless can be — isn’t love the thing we’re aiming for? the thing we keep trying to get right? like turning the mothership some days. 

don’t we all dream of love the verb? if it’s simply a noun it has no real distinctions, no muscle, no bone. the love that might change things is the love that doesn’t hang out in armchairs (not unless it makes room for someone to snuggle right beside), doesn’t hang out in corners idly hoping its fumes will get the job done. 

it’s a verb in its truest form. it’s the verb that picks up the call. at the oddest of hours, and snaps to attention, full attention soon as your ear canal opens. it’s the verb that grabs the car keys and leaps behind the wheel, and drives as many hours or miles as it takes. to get the job done. the job is being there: being there in heart, in the flesh. at the bedside. when the elevator door glides open. when the curtain of the ER cubicle is pulled back. when eyelids flutter open after emergency surgery.

that’s love at full attention. love when it asks the next question. and the hard question. and the hardest question of all. 

it’s what i try to think about not just on mother’s day. but every day. love is a verb. and it dies without practice. 

i’ve long declared that this day set aside for “mothers” is really a day that should be devoted to “mothering,” another action verb. a synonym for love when it’s a verb. a verb that belongs to no pre-specified quadrant of the population; a verb for all who practice. who day in and day out practice, try to get it right. admit to the fumbles and stumbles, shake the dirt off their knees, get back up and try it again. to mother is to love defiantly, urgently, sometimes as if there’s no tomorrow. to mother is to lavish the golden glorious rule: “love as you would be loved.” whatever it takes. however deep, however hard, however exhausted.

here’s to every someone who puts the verb in “to love.” and especially to those who mother me with all their hearts: to my mama, my mother-in-heart in new jersey, to my best friend who long ago taught me what love can feel like, and to those rare few who let me practice day after day, hour by hour. i love you. happy love-is-a-verb day.

define or describe “your love is a verb” from the person or people who taught you….

here are the two mamas i’m especially loving this day…both have had especially bumpy months and we are loving them dearly….

quite simply: asking for prayers.

it dawned on me that after all these years and all the threads woven here at this old table, we’ve something of a prayer shawl, even though there might be more than a few who gather here unbeknownst to me. so i realized i can quietly ask for prayers, even just one or two up the old prayer chimney, for my beautiful mama.

my fiercely independent 90-year-old mama, the Original Mother Nature, Barbara the Wiser, was in a terrible accident driving home from morning Mass on Easter Monday. the day before she’d been hiking in the woods with a friend, looking for bluebirds, scanning the marshland for dogtooth violets and trillium, the wild and tender things of the woodlands.

but on Easter Monday morning, driving from church to home, her car was totaled, and she was taken by ambulance to the hospital where so many important things in our life have unfolded (my beloved little brother was born there, my father died there). in the passenger seat of my mama’s car had been the canvas bag of church altar-cloth laundry that my mama has washed and ironed for years. that canvas bag of church laundry was the only thing my mama carried with her in the ambulance. when i got to the emergency room, there were the LL Bean jeans she’s worn for a couple decades (and i mean the single pair she’s worn, not merely the brand she’s always worn), there was her father’s pale blue golf sweater (the one she wears for an extra layer of comfort, the hug with sleeves), the pink polo shirt, and, laying quietly atop the neat little stack of her “uniform,” the canvas bag of white linen rectangles, each stitched with a simple red cross.

(that still-life, folded and stacked, is now one of the freeze frames of my mother’s life i will forever carry with me….the ambulance, and the instinct to reach first and only for the bag of church laundry. those Sacred Heart nuns certainly drummed in the lessons on devotion, there in the convent on the hill in Cincinnati where my mama grew up.)

my mama is hurting terribly, and i am asking for a prayer. it will help her, and it will help me and my four beautiful, beautiful brothers, all of whom are once again tightly and lovingly woven together, each carrying one corner of the let’s-get-mom-through-this banner.

i wrote of my mama on her 90th birthday last november, and i am going to paste a few of those paragraphs here, just so you know a little bit more of the woman for whom you are praying. during all these months of COVID, the one thing my mama — who until COVID volunteered somewhere (soup kitchen, nature preserve, botanic garden classrooms) six days a week — the one activity she’s kept at (even a little this week with her achy achy body) was knitting prayer shawls for whomever needs to be wrapped in prayer, and blankets for babies in faraway desperate places. someone so good shouldn’t be in such pain — but of course even as i type those words i know that’s not how it works; it’s simply the truths of what i hear myself wishing…..

here are a few bits about Barbara the Wiser, for whom i ask you to offer a prayer….

she has long been our matriarch, our mother, our chief instructor in living a good and simple life. hers is the code attributed to st. francis: “preach the gospel at all times; if necessary, use words.”

in our house, she’s grammy. there’s even a day of the week named in her honor, grammy tuesday, a title she earned by motoring to our house every blessed tuesday since our firstborn was born in june of 1993. she played the role of “nanny” one day a week, when he was a newborn, a toddler, straight through till the day we sent him off to college. when he was eight, and we found out he was getting a brother, grammy doubled her workload. without hesitation or pause, she announced she was coming on thursdays as well. over the years, her nanny equipment expanded to include the blue plastic cooler she filled with the fixings of whatever she’d decided we were having for dinner, one of a rotating cycle of circa 1970s dinners. if you trace back the roots of her cooking you might discern that she was the wife of an ad man, an ad man who counted campbell’s soup among his quiver of clients, and thus my mother might only be bested by mr. warhol when it comes to making the most of a soup can.

because my mother is all action, few words, the scenes that flash in the carousel that plays in my head — just like the home movies that clackety-clacked through the reel of the kodak projector she’d set up in front of the living room fireplace, every once in a sunday — are utterly silent.

watching them now, on the eve of the dawn of her tenth decade, they still take my breath away.

there’s the time at the kitchen door, when the long black limousine from the funeral home idled in our circular drive, and my mother (a widow at 50) in her camel hair church coat gathered the five of us (one girl, four boys in her brood), and intoned: “make your father proud.” she’d meant in the church where we were headed for his funeral, and the cemetery afterward, but i’d always taken it as instruction for life. and i’ve tried, oh i’ve tried. 

there’s another time, in a misty winter’s drizzle, when we were motoring into the cemetery where my father was buried, and we were carrying a tiny wooden box, inlaid with brass. inside was the tiny, tiny baby girl i’d just miscarried. we’d decided to bury her beside my father, and as we drove into st. mary’s cemetery, there was my mother, standing above her husband’s grave, her foot to the lip of the shovel, already digging the hole where we would lay our baby to rest, forever atop her grandfather’s chest. 

there are even — more rarely — silly times: squirting a can of whipped cream into the mouths of my boys. squirting it into her own. when i was little once we stayed up late, my mother and i, making fudge from a box. and then, leaning against the fridge in the dark, we cut out piece after piece in the moonlight. we giggled.

my mother has taught me to fix things myself, to sew on a button, to darn the holes in a sock. my mother gave me ironing lessons there at the board she unfolded in the kitchen, sprinkled with water doused from a recycled 7Up bottle she’d fitted with a hole-pocked cap, the better to moisten your wrinkles. she taught me how to get a sharp enough crease on an oxford cloth shirt, or a pillow case, should you be so inspired. (i’m usually not.) and right there at that ironing board, on a day without school, she taught me all about “the birds and the bees,” (her words) and the womanly cycle certain to come.

my mother taught me to love birds and walks in the woods. my mother woke me up most every school morning trilling lines from robert browning, robert louis stevenson, or emily D, her beloved belle of amherst. my mother taught us, over and over, not to ever let the church get in the way of God. i took it as gospel. when i came home with my jewish boyfriend, my mother who’s gone to morning mass every day of her life, pulled me aside to tell me he was a keeper. she even pinned on him her highest medal of honor, “he’s an old shoe,” she exclaimed, citing the holes in soles of his penny loafers, and the falling-down hem of his seersucker shorts. when our firstborn — the old shoe’s and mine — turned 13, and became a bar mitzvah, my mother spent months carving from wood the yad, or pointer he would use to trace the lines of the hebrew scroll as he read from the Torah. 

my mother, by many measures, has not had it so easy. she’s borne heartache enough to crush a flimsier soul. but my mother — whose daily uniform of baggy, faded denim jeans, sweatshirt, and lace-up thick-soled shoes bespeaks her character — is nothing if not sturdy.

but even the sturdy, sometimes, feel broken. and this morning, that is my mama.

with all my heart, thank you for whispering a prayer for comfort and healing for my sturdy, sturdy mama. she’s the one who needs to be wrapped in the prayer shawl today.

xoxox and bless you for doing so……

we need to get her sturdy again. and for now, my old nursing degree is coming in mighty mighty handy.

true Christmas morning prayer…

that first Christmas, the one that for millennia we have gazed upon, meditated over, infused into our sugar-spun dreams, was as stripped-down as the ones perhaps unfurling under our own roofs this year.

there was no garland, only straw. no sparkly tree, only the boughs of whatever bush nestled against the flimsy walls of the barn. there were no carolers, only the lowing of the cow, and the clucking of the miserly hen who laid but one egg each dawn. 

what was was a mother in labor, her anguished cries of birth echoed decades later in the anguish of beholding a necessary crucifixion, one ordained by the heavens. one that might have filled an earthly mother with undying rage. certainly the mother who types these words. but in the barn that inky night there was no rage, only cries that shattered pitch-black darkness, only cries of mother and, in time, the child.

what was was the bloody birth, the newborn soaked in waters of the womb. 

what was was the gaze, eternal gaze, between mother and child, mother and the face of God. does not every mother see the face of God in the one pushed from her womb? in the one she calls her own, no matter how the child comes?

and so this Christmas, when all else is stripped away, when there are empty chairs at the table, when the oven holds less than half its usual Yuletide feast, when our arms cannot reach round the shoulders of those we love, when we cannot feel another’s heartbeat pressed against our own, we are flung into the whirl–the holy whirl–of empathies.

this is how Christmas feels to many. this is morning after morning when you awake to wanting. 

and so my prayer this quiet Christmas is first and most for all those whose hearts ache, those who forage in the back alleys of this uncaring world, who go to sleep longing for a hand to hold in the hollow of the night, those who cry for justice from behind bars not of their own making. 

my prayer is for those whose Christmas lullaby is the beep-beep-blip of some machine that keeps them alive. 

my prayer is for the cold, cold of flesh and bone, and cold—so cold—of heart. 

my prayer is for those whose gaze is washed with tears, stinging tears, all-alone tears, tears of please deliver me.

my prayer for each and all is that the blessedness of Christmas—the truth of newborn hope birthed after long hard labor, cradled heart against heart, entwined in love beyond measure from before first breath—my prayer is that the blessedness of Christmas settles deep inside the chambers of your soul, and that you look out upon a day, a world, in which radiance erupts through darkness, dawn after dawn. and all is holy, and holy is all.

merry blessed wonder of true Christmas.

xoxo

a hundred blessings from here at the old maple table. sleep this year is in short supply, as we are spanning time zones from middle america to pacific northwest, filling the hours with as much Christmas as you can pack in itty-bitty phone lines. i wished for phones with smell last night, so my own firstborn–my heart’s pure joy–could inhale whatever was wafting from the oven. he said last night that he couldn’t imagine waking up on Christmas without the scents of bread pudding–the cinnamon, the egg + milk, the chunks of orchard apple. nor could i. but here it is. and next Christmas, God willing, it will be all the sweeter for its absence here this morning.

may your day be blessed. how will you make Christmas, true Christmas, come true this year?

image above, way above, is Albrecht Dürer’s The Nativity, 1511; image below is our little Christmas tree: what happens when you’re the last one to the tree lot (cuz you couldn’t bear to buy a tree till all your loves were home, and you finally realized that wasn’t going to happen this year….)

p.s. the wholly unsurprising what-came-next (or, can’t quash a mama’s urge to tuck her chicks beneath her wings. certainly not when one is burning up with fever…)

in which we recount the inevitable rescue mission to pluck sick kid from college dorm, and tuck him home where he belongs….

in last week’s episode, we had a sick sophomore in college who’d been quarantined in an old comfort inn somewhere in the vast ohio countryside, a kid who’d been saved from despair and starvation by the glorious graces of one saint melissa, the college catering director who leapt full throttle into the ministrations of a mama hen intent on plying her charge with saltines and gingerale, chicken zoup and instant rice cups, to highlight but a bit of her extraordinary and voluminous six-bag grocery list.

the tale of woe and mono continues…

round about sunday morning, when the fever teetered still at the almost-104 yard-line, when the great ER-doc friend here in chicago endorsed rescue, when the father of said sick kid was jangling the car keys and lacing up his shoes, it was decided that we were pointing the old red wagon straight toward gambier, ohio, and bringing home our ailing one.

which, of course, is where he belonged. six days of round-the-clock FaceTiming — the digital tether now afforded us in this age of iPhone — is at least five days too long. and as much as we didn’t want to interrupt this already surreal semester, perhaps the only one on campus for the sophomores and freshmen this COVID year, we couldn’t bear the thought of him all alone all through the long and fevered nights, unable to shuffle to the fridge for so much as another water bottle.

halfway to ohio, our beloved long-time pediatrician (officially no longer on the case, but again, one of those angels you don’t let go of) dialed in, and ticked off names of ERs he’d trust along our long drive home, should we need to pull over and check in at any one of them. it was, in fact, that scary.

in one of the dozens of text messages i was pinging to our sweet boy, one in which i wrote how sorry i was for having to scoop him up from college, he wrote back, “I cant wait to come home” and then: “It is a prayer answered”

“You just made me cry” i typed through tears, and added: “Daddy says cavalry is coming”

and i tell you, the minute that sweet sick boy was strapped in the station-wagon seat behind us, nestled against his pillow, within arm’s reach, nothing but two surgical masks between us, my heart slowed to a life-sustaining saunter.

synagogue choir, ala YouTube

the holiest part of the night — the part i will never forget — was speeding through the countryside, as the sun dropped low and the stars turned on, and the holiest of jewish holy days, yom kippur, the day of atonement, commenced. in all my husband’s six-plus decades he has never been behind the wheel on yom kippur, a day of reverent prayer and fasting. but ferrying a sick kid to safety suspends the rules — at least the rule about not driving, and so we drove unfettered. and because it’s the year of COVID and all is already upside down, and because we live in the iPhone age and you can dial in from wherever you are, i zoomed into our synagogue’s Kol Nidre service, and the minor-key chords of the cello filled the wagon — and my soul — as the highway rose and dipped, and the field of stars felt so close i might have rolled down the window and grabbed one. i can’t remember feeling so wrapped in heaven’s prayer shawl.

monday morning, as i tiptoed past my sweet boy’s bedroom door, a room all but untouched since summer’s end, a room that’s echoed silence all these weeks, i heard the stuffed-up gurgle of his breathing, and declared it the most soothing sound i could imagine. it’s hard-wiring, i suppose: a mama is best suited to hear in real time her child’s strains, especially when they’re the ones of any sort of struggle. long-distance, sometimes, feels impossible, and wholly against our mama grain.

before the morning ended, we’d checked in to our local emergency room, where they plied the kid with more IVs and megadoses of tylenol. once again, COVID negative, thank god. it’s mono, off the charts.

so here we are, at the end of week two, with another trip to the doctor this morning, and no end in sight (though i know the cure will come, a knowing i do not take for granted).

all i truly know is that i can’t imagine not being the one to be sliding batches of bread pudding in the oven, the sweet scent of cinnamon and eggs and milk — the original nursery-maid’s confection and cure-all — trailing up the stairs and round the bend. nor being the one who’s keeping track of when he’s swallowing which of the five prescriptions now lined up like amber-bottled soldiers on the kitchen counter. nor the one who’s but a few feet away, peeking at his laptop, as he delights in the latest episode of “the british baking show” (his sure-to-soothe show of choice) during the rare few hours when he’s not sound asleep.

there are numbered truths in life, and one of them is that sick, sick kids belong by their mama’s side. or maybe i’ve got that backwards. maybe it’s that mamas belong by the side of their sick, sick kids.

it’s inevitable. it’s imperative. and it’s most certainly a blessing.

just a simple tale, today, of what happened next. and a short consideration of the blessings of proximity when those we love are in some degree of distress. what makes you feel soothed when you are ailing, body or soul?

of plastic shields and impenetrable helmets: an improbable american summer

new york times photo of portland street protest, braced and armed with umbrella shields, this summer’s symbol of resistance

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?

amid the chaos, my true song rises

the requisite homecoming appliance: the mixer of countless welcome-home cookie doughs over the decades

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?

at heart, it’s survival

pickled lime soup.

survival soup: pickled lime, lemon grass, knobs of ginger root, garlic, chili pepper (photo by kalyanee mam)

in this moment of pandemic, amid news reports that make us sometimes want to plug our ears, amid barren calendar pages turned week after week, our everyday tasks are shifted. gone is the dashing here and there (and that’s a very fine thing). gone are the awful tugs and pulls, the guilt strings that tell us we should be doing X,Y, or Z. 

instead, it’s distilled to more of the essence: the few things that really do matter, the ones that matter all the more because all the distraction’s been whittled away. we’re left with essential. and essential is this: exercise your heart, your voluminous, many-chambered heart. use it for its highest purest purpose. use it to love. use it to survive. use it for survival, plain and not so simple. 

or, as my online-college kid put it last night, as he pounded out one of his pile of end-of-semester papers: “corona mom, keep your boys safe. and sane.” (the emphasis on that second sentence, the way he emphatically tacked it onto the first, made it clear that that’s every bit of my job these red-ringed-dodging days. and i couldn’t take it more certainly to heart.)

i’d been thinking a bit about how–in between hours of proofing and re-proofing pages for a new book–my corona days have boiled down to a whole lot of caretaking. how hunting and gathering inform my weekly rhythms (primarily in the form of my hazmat-outfitted grocery-store runs). how feeding is hardly an afterthought. how each night i’m taking time to plot out some serious semblance of dinner, even if, like last night, tearing open bags from the freezer is part of the equation, and it’s hardly all scratch cooking. (though there are days when simmering pots on the stove are as close to incantation as a kitchen might be.) how spritzing pillow cases with lavender water, how scrubbing out the bathtub and sink, how all of it feels essential, verging on straight-up survival. yes, even the scrubbing.

and then, of course, there are the interludes when i’m plopped on the side of someone’s bed, rubbing little circles on someone’s weary forehead. or putting aside those pages of proofs when someone asks, “can you help me with this grilled cheese?”

it is all a part of essential. especially, emphatically, now.

and then i read an essay from a brilliant filmmaker (and lawyer), kalyanee mam, once a cambodian refugee, born during the god-awful khmer rouge regime, one of seven children whose early years were spent in a work camp, before her family escaped through jungle and landmines to a refugee camp on the thai-cambodian border. during the years of the khmer rouge, mam writes that her mother sustained her brood with umami soups, chicken rice, and fried noodles. and that template of nourish-to-survive is the one to which mam has turned in these corona times. she writes:

During these past weeks, I’ve thrown myself into the role of caregiver, as my mother once did. As I soak and sprout beans and rice, chop onions, carrots, and celery, mince and sauté garlic, knead dough, and bake bread, I am finding certainty, meaning, and purpose in preparing and sharing food and conversation with family, friends, and neighbors. In taking care of my loved ones and making sure they are fed, nourished, healthy, and well, I am also being fed. Time has stopped and nothing feels more important.

nothing feels more important.

it’s not every day that we realize that tending to the domesticities of our lives matters at all. most of the time, in the days before corona, that was the almost-disregarded part of what some of us did. those were the chores. the necessities. but maybe, somewhere along the way, we’d come to misunderstand necessity, confused it for meaningless. when, in fact, it’s everything but.

or, as kalyanee mam put it:

care and love are not luxuries: they are necessities, the essence of all life and our survival. in the worst of times and in the face of adversity, care thrives….when our basic human needs are threatened, including our need for certainty, meaning, and purpose, caring emerges to inform us that we are not alone. 

it’s this instinct to care, to take care, to make care, that might make all the difference. that might be the essence of why we’re here at all.

in pondering caring, and what it means to take care, mam writes of the anthropologist margaret mead and her idea of the first sign of civilization. it’s an insight mead long ago revealed in a lecture, and it was retold in a book by the eminent surgeon dr. paul brand, titled, the gift of pain. the revelation, and brand’s take on its meaning, unfolded like this:

“What would you say is the earliest sign of civilization?” Mead asked, naming a few options. A clay pot? Tools made of iron? The first domesticated plants? “These are all early signs,” she continued, “but here is what I believe to be evidence of the earliest true civilization.”

High above her head she held a human femur, the largest bone in the leg, and pointed to a grossly thickened area where the bone had fractured and solidly healed.

“Such signs of healing are never found among the remains of the earliest, fiercest societies. In their skeletons we find violence: a rib pierced by an arrow, a skull crushed by a club. But this healed bone shows that someone must have cared for the injured person—hunted on his behalf, brought him food, served him at personal sacrifice.”

With Margaret Mead, I believe that this quality of shared pain is central to what it means to be a human being.… And the presence of a caring person can have an actual, measurable effect on pain and on healing.

“civilization,” mam concludes, “begins with care.”

and so, we are, all of us, called to care, to share the pain of those we love. to exercise that glorious vessel, the heart. the one anointed and appointed to love and love lavishly. to love as we would be loved. to love as if there’s not a tomorrow. to love with all the urgency of now. as if it might keep us alive. because, truly, it might.

and with that, may your mothering day — a day for all who mother, who care, who love tenderly and fiercely and without end — may it be blessed.

your thoughts on taking care, on the exercise of the heart, and the necessity of love and survival? in any time, but especially now?

something of a christmas-y diary (and a book for the soul)

church door

’twas the morn after the morn after the morn that was christmas. not a creature is stirring, ‘cept for me and the first flash of red at the seed trough. the so-called children are nestled all snug in their beds. and so is their papa.

christmas early morn

christmas quiet

i’m up early because, well, i always am. but amid the cacophony that is christmas, it’s the one sure anchor of silence amid the rivers of boys flowing in and out of the house, and the fridge, and the room in the basement they’ve since dubbed “the boy cave.” it’s a room where who-knows-what goes on by night. loud whoops of boy noise bellowed up through the vents last night, so much so that the young legal scholar (a mere four years out of college himself) wondered if perhaps we could do something to stifle the bellows. (i found this more than mildly ironic.) sounded to me like a vociferous round of ping-pong, albeit one that rattled the clanky old pipes in this rattled old house.

yorkshire puddin boys

yorkshire pudding elves

before i turn the page over to the latest in an ongoing and slow-paced series of books for the soul, all courtesy of their original appearance in the chicago tribune, my newspaper home for so many years, i thought i’d share a few entries from the christmas diary: i could tell you about the smoke alarm that bellowed for a good 8.2 minutes on christmas evening, as the young legal scholar “seared” (aka smoked) the long serpentine tenderloin of christmas-y beast. i could tell you how this greatly unnerved the grandmama of said searer, who was certain the beast was being charred to bits right before our wondering smoke-filled eyes (fast forward: it all worked out fine; delicious, in fact).

i could tell you how my heart is wobbling about inside my ribcage. how, on the one hand, it’s bursting with joy at the sweet sounds of falling asleep with the ones i most love all tucked under one roof. and yet, with an eye to the calendar swiftly zipping by, i already know that one of the two is leaving before the last of the leftover beast is snitched from the fridge. so much joy vacuum-packed into a short string of days, and then — poof! — like a flash on the lawn, there’s nothing left but the last blob of toothpaste clung to the sink.

i suppose i’m in the midst of learning to take my motherly joys in oversize gulps, trying hard not to glance forward to the hard edge of the precipice when the house goes quiet, the beds go unrumpled, and i long for a fat load of laundry to wash, fold, and ferry.

christmas chairthis must be yet another tutorial in the fine art of savoring, of pressing each hour deep against my heart, of tucking the textures deep into the crannies of wherever it is that we store those moments we’ll soon want to pull out, like prayer beads, to run our fingers — and hearts — over and over. and over again.

i know these days — and even these short strings of overabundant joy — are numbered. the more these boys grow up, the more criss-crossed the chance of fetching them home, both at the very same time. it’s now down to once, maybe twice, in a year — at very best.

christmas platesso for now, i’ll merrily dash again and again to the grocery, packing the old red wagon to the brim with cheeses and fruits, and meats by the multiple pounds. i’ll relish the chance to haul bulging sacks of recyclables out to the alley. i’ll marvel at the miracle of mounds of dirty clothes raining down the laundry chute, spilling out of the basket and onto the floor. i won’t even mind trying — over and over and over — to wrench one of the sleepyheads from bed so he gets to work on time these few winter days when he’s flipping burgers, slicing taters into fries, and delighting his boss at five guys (where he’s earning a wee bit of money for college adventures).

i’ll gulp down each of these hours. hold each in the palm of my hand, and press every last one hard against my heart. i’ll savor the joy of the here and the now. and i’ll whisper, amen, a word derived from hebrew, a word that means “certainty, truth, or verily.” amen. yes, amen.

here’s the latest book for the soul, one i truly loved, lugged around with me wherever i traipsed for a few days, because i did not want to put it down, not till the end of timothy egan’s “pilgrimage to eternity,” a trek through ancient monasteries, blister-riddled mountain trails and much of christian history, in search of an elusive certainty.

Timothy Egan’s stirring ‘Pilgrimage to Eternity’ searches for faith

pilgrimage cover

By BARBARA MAHANY

CHICAGO TRIBUNE |DEC 24, 2019 

In “A Pilgrimage to Eternity: From Canterbury to Rome in Search of a Faith,” Pulitzer Prize-winning author Timothy Egan offers a stirring account of his struggles with Catholicism. (Handout)

It’s not hard to imagine dead silence on the other end of the line when Timothy Egan, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and author, dialed up his literary agent and sketched out his proposal for a book-length perambulation through time and the tumultuous terrain of Western Christianity, a months-long trek — by foot in the age of Uber! — from Canterbury to Rome, excavating tales of sinners and saints all along the way. Harder to imagine such a tome would prove impossible to put down.

Aha.

Mission Accomplished: “A Pilgrimage to Eternity” is, in fact, a glorious, laugh-out-loud, wipe-away-tears, blister-riddled, often rain-soaked, sometimes bone-chilled, desolate and desperate, quietly triumphant walk through church history — every last footfall in search of an elusive modern-day spiritual certitude.

Egan, an op-ed columnist for The New York Times, begins as a self-confessed skeptic, an Irish Catholic, who, like many, is “lapsed but listening.” He lays out the stakes of his 1,000-mile quest for any flicker of faith: One member of his family, he writes, “was nearly destroyed by religion,” another “made whole by religion,” after the murder of her teenage son. Rage, he writes, is mixed with redemption.

“Malnutrition of the soul is a plague of modern life,” Egan writes. His is a narrative driven by questions, not iron-clad answers, and one that confronts doubt head-on, never reaching for facile conclusions.

Propelled by truth-seeking, he takes to the Via Francigena, one of the oldest pilgrimage trails in the world that for centuries has led the devout and seekers alike toward Rome, coursing Alpine peaks and medieval monasteries tucked into the folds of storybook hamlets across France, Switzerland and Italy.

A storyteller at heart, Egan populates his trek with a quirky cast of fellow pilgrims, all of whom animate the adventure. He twists and turns from church history — never flinching from the good, the bad or the gruesome — into the deeply personal questions and quandaries that push him onward. His sister-in-law’s terminal cancer, his nephew’s murder, a dear friend’s suicide in the wake of priestly sexual abuse, his mother’s death, and, yes, the 2016 presidential election — all of which ratchet up his need to examine the bare threads of faith.

Egan proves himself to be a prime traveling companion. Someone with whom you’d gladly share your last blister-pak bandage for the sheer delight of his company, intelligence and curiosity.

That he happens to be a beautiful writer — describing Franciscan monks in their “cinnamon-colored robes,” quoting Dom Perignon’s “I am drinking the stars” — is what makes the 33 chapters unspool effortlessly. It’s nothing short of remarkable to find yourself itching to lug around the nearly 400-page book (indispensable appendix and annotated fold-out map included), in hopes of a swatch of time to inhale yet another chapter.

Shortly after telling the story of how his 17-year-old nephew was shot to death by a teenager, Egan sits down with a Benedictine monk in a centuries-old monastery in the Alps. Egan asks the black-robed priest if he believes in miracles, then circles in on a trickier question, one that vexes most anyone who thinks hard about faith: “Do you have doubts?” The priest answers: “About miracles? No. About my faith? Yes. Doubts are allowed by God. Reason can help you come to faith. It’s a bit like training for sports. If you only ride a bicycle with the wind at your back, that’s not going to help you. You need to ride your bike against the wind.”

And so Egan — and any other modern-day pilgrim searching for faith — puts his questions to the wind, walking through ice and snow and rain and brutal heat.

He never gives up. At last standing on a promontory overlooking the city of Rome, Egan beholds the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica. As a thunderclap rattles the sky, the pilgrim with whom we’ve shared the long road recalls Michelangelo’s life motto: “the greatest danger, he said, ‘is not that we aim too high and miss it, but that we aim too low and reach it.’ ”

Egan aimed high, and he reached it.

Barbara Mahany is the author of several books, including, “Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door.”

‘A Pilgrimage to Eternity’

By Timothy Egan, Viking, 384 pages, $28

what one moment from your christmas is already pressed to your heart?