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Category: other people’s children

for the children: an inaugural prayer and a promise

teddy and mom, heart in hands

my heart is heavy today, and when it’s at its most leaden i try mightily to lift it through prayer.

my prayer at the dawn of this day is for the children.

i think in particular of a deep-eyed girl of seven who lives in faraway maine, a little girl who holed herself in her chandelier-lit bedroom on monday, listening all day to the speeches of martin luther king, jr., a little girl who asks questions about how to use her voice — to speak out when she hears a girl teasing her friend on the playground, to speak up for what she believes, without fear that she’ll wind up unloved and pushed aside in the process.

she’s a little girl who is finding her way through the tangled landscape of fairness and justice, who is looking to the grownups around her to find the tools she’ll make her own, the tools that just might allow her to leave this world a little bit more whole — and more healed — than when she arrived.

“she’s struggling with this fear of not being loved if we use our voice and it’s not the same as everyone else’s, if all the voices don’t ring the same,” says her mama, a very wise soul with a very wise voice. “she understands that we can’t give someone else our voice, and we can’t borrow the voice of someone else. so, for her, martin luther king day was all about the power of using our voice for what we believe in, about the conflict of speaking up or keeping quiet even when you know something is wrong.”

my prayer is for that little girl. my prayer is for all the children, the ones waking up, perhaps, on a wobbly cot, under a thin blanket, squeezed tight against the mama who protects them from unthinkable things in the night. i am thinking, too, of the children who wake up not far from me, in bedrooms where walls are covered in papers and paints that cost more per square foot or per gallon than some of us could ever fathom.

i pray for them all.

because children don’t get a say in where they are born, and in whose arms they find themselves cradled. they don’t choose who soothes them; they ask only to be soothed, and fed, and kept warm and kept dry. they beg to be loved.

if they’re blessed, they’re anointed with all of those things. if there are eyes to gaze back at them, a voice to whisper — or sing — to them, if there are arms to scoop them up when they cry, well, then they’ve already won the baby lottery.

children are pure at birth, and not yet thick-skinned. they’re nearly translucent, in matters of heart and soul anyway. their job early on is to pay close attention, the attention of saints and prophets. they’re keeping watch in hopes of figuring out just who it is they want to be, and how they might best find their own circuitous way through the wilds.

i pray for them this newborn morning because i want theirs to be a world where goodness and kindness and gentleness seep in, seep to their core, bathe them through and through in truth and justice and love in purest tincture.

i want the grownups around them, and even the ones far away, to commit, day after day, to trying to show them these few fine things: tenderness, honesty, strength of courage, and moral resolve. i want them enveloped in the very strands at the core of every sacred text ever inscribed.

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Aylan Kurdi, 3, a Syrian refugee who drowned fleeing his war-torn homeland, and washed ashore in Turkey. Photo by Nilufer Demir

i want children to be able to tune into the world beyond their front door and not hear vitriol, not see ugliness. i want them to listen to sharp and curious minds engaged in debate and dialogue, free from jagged edge, free from acid-tinged tone. i pray to God they don’t some day aimlessly change the channel and stumble on images of war-pummeled children, images of children covered in dust and rubble and blood from their wounds; children dumped — or washed ashore — lifeless.

i want them to hear the booming voice of hope, of words that lift the human spirit and set it soaring. i want them to feel wrapped in a message that tingles their spine, because even a child — especially a child — knows beautiful when she or he hears it.

i want each child to know full well that he or she can dream wildly, can be the very someone they choose and work to be. i don’t want them to know the sound of a door slamming in their face, or the screech of a siren carrying them — or someone they dearly love — far, far away. i don’t want a single child to be scared to death, to be breathless with fear. i don’t want hands and arms ripped away from them. i don’t want a child left alone in a classroom or closet or train car, left cowering in a corner.

i want for these children the america that i believe in — one that looks much like the world as God first imagined it: skin in a thousand shades of brown and black and cream. i want a melting pot where everyone gets a fair and solid chance. i want books — gloriously written tomes — to be as close as the nearest library. i want teachers to fill classrooms where learning is rich and intellects are lit on fire. i want leaders with backbone, with the courage to stand up and say, “that’s not right, that’s a lie, that’s unfair, or unjust, or just plain hateful.”

i want a sky that’s uncluttered with smog and poisonous fumes. i want a child to be able to poke his or her head out the window at night and count the stars, connect the dots of heaven’s light, name the constellations. i want the rivers and streams to gurgle and babble and rush and roar. i want children to know the sound of a leaf crunching underfoot, or even a wee little creature scampering by — close enough, perhaps, to muster a fright, an innocent fright, the fright of the woods.

i want children to sit down to a table where there’s food from the earth, wholesome food, unsullied food. food to make the child whole, and strong, and able.

i want children to be strong of body and sinew and bone, yet i know that can’t always be. and for those who are not — not strong, and not able, for children who are sick, or born with terrible burdens, i want them to be able to find a doctor or nurse or healthcare worker who can get to the bottom of the mystery, the quandary, the illness, and work toward a cure. or at least erase the suffering, as much as is humanly possible. i’ll beg God to step in to take care of all the rest, and to ease the worries too — of mama and papa and child, and anyone else who lies awake fretting every dreaded what-if.

i want for all the world’s children all the very same things i want for my own: i want them to know deeply that they are loved. i want them to know there is a heart always willing to listen, to hear every last utterance of their worries or fears or confusions. i want them to know that all around there are great good souls who are gentle and kind and unceasingly fair, souls who do not reach for words as weapons of hurt, or of hate.

i want them to know: when i’ve run out of answers, when i cannot quell the trembles, or chase away the darkness, there is a God who’s always in reach.

i want their prayers to be answered, and mine to be heard.

and i promise, with all my heart on this day, to do all i can to make certain the world i imagine, the world that i want, is the one i work hard to come true. i’ll do my part. starting right now. as the sun rises, again.

what do you pray for the children? what do you pray on this day at the start of a chapter?

of may bugs and the wonder of footsteps above

maybugs and wonder of welcome

he was gone by the time i started bumbling into may bugs. i found them crawling across the old pine hutch, the one i almost burned down one night long ago when a candle took a fancy to the century-old wooden knobs. i found the spotted-back bugs slithering across a chinese bowl in the living room. i found them parked and preening smack dab under the daffodils on the dining room table.

they were but the latest charmed import from the charming fellow who called this old house home for the last two weeks of chilly, drizzly april.

he’s gone now, our dear friend bernd, father to jan luca, the blond-haired lad who two years ago was here and stole my heart as, each day at dawn, he tiptoed down the stairs, splayed his stash of colored pencils and his writing papers across the maple table and sat beside me at the morning bench, crafting yet another page in the latest of his illustrated storybooks. (had i ordered this sweet child from bavarian central casting, i wondered? had he dropped into my heart from a puffy cloud of dreams, one that had wafted across the atlantic and settled down along my lake shore?)

and — in a role we’ll never forget — bernd was also the big-hearted papa who late into the lonely nights last summer sat beside our little world traveler, the one who’d trekked to germany and found himself topsy-turvy. even as the midnight hour came and went, bernd never left our little fellow’s side as he heaved his traveler’s tummy and wanted, more than anything, his faraway (and passport-less) mama to airlift him home sweet home. you don’t forget a man who soothes your child’s tangled heart. who, for days on end, pedals beside him on miles-long bike treks through munster’s leafy arbored tunnels. and buys him ices at the finish line.

it’s a multi-chaptered friendship now, what with all the criss-crossings of sea and sky. and the shared knowledge that we’ve loved each other’s children as if our own, for the few short weeks they’ve been in our care. and this time round, we got to be the ones to unfurl the welcome mat for bernd. to tuck spring beauties by the bedside, wrap the empty mattress in the softest flannel sheets, fill the fridge with meats and cheese and toothsome breads, because we’d been schooled on how to feed a touring deutsche mann.

the bed is empty once again, the footsteps now are stilled. bernd, one of the liveliest minds i’ve encountered in quite some time, has packed his bags and climbed aboard a train, leading his flock of westphalian schoolchildren down to where abe lincoln roamed.

but for the better part of these past two weeks, we shared our house, and felt our hearts wedge ever wider. it’s what comes when welcome lasts for days.

it’s that rarest of alchemies, the one that tiptoes into your very soul, and settles in at the comfiest nook. it’s mixed and poured in the shared pulse beat and the daily rhythms ticking through the hours: the soon-familiar rustle of bare feet on bare floor above. the flushing of the morning drain. the coming to know that the extra coffee mug now queued beside the pot is the one that takes a glug of what you now know to be vollmilch, whole milk.

(you actually manage to pick up a word or three, over the course of your 10-day german immersion, and you thank your lucky stars that your houseguest is the english teacher at the german school in telgte, north rhine-westphalia, and can converse with depth and nuance on any subject you introduce, from the strife in ukraine to acupuncture as a cure for allergy.)

it’s something sacred, i swear, this slow-unspooling tête-à-tête and cœur à cœur that comes only when circling in close proximity over the course of added-up days.

and, like all that matters most in life, it’s an arithmetic of the most elemental units, combining to intricate — and breath-taking — calculus.

when we inhabit the same four walls, when we come to know by heart the waking up and slumber, when we pass a bowl of lumpy potatoes across a table, swap sections of the news, when one conversation circles back and round again, when we are interlaced across the span of sunlight and moonlight, when we share the itty-bitty worries of the day (was any school child lost in the trudge across chicago’s loop?), and when one of us applies the ice to the other one’s purpled and twisted wrist (after a spectacular late-night fall that’s left me typing with one hand), we are more than simply friends.

we are bare-hearted humans who inch closer and closer to a shared vision of the world.

sympatico, “having a fellow feeling;” sym derived from syn (greek, meaning “together with, at the same time”) + pathos (again, greek, for “suffering, feeling,” or “a quality arousing pity;” related to penthos, “grief, sorrow”).

it is what happens, over hours and days, over the pirouette at the refrigerator door when one reaches for juice and the other for cheese, over the turning out of the kitchen light when at last it’s time for bed, over the considerate hauling out of the trash, and the remembering to keep the cat from the allergic guest’s pillow.

it is what’s bound to come — a sort of elmer’s heart glue — that’s applied in drips and dabs across the days. it’s our natural inclination to harbor the wholeness — the light and shadow, the fine-grained and the sweeping brushstroke — of those with whom we share dirty dishes in the sink, whose toilet paper rolls we make certain are plenty, whose soggy socks we whirl through the dryer.

it’s as if we’re erasing, hour by hour, the walls that keep any two humans apart. we realize — because we hear the gurglings of everyday life, we scour the sink of another morning’s whiskers, we laugh out loud at the same wacky lines on SNL — how very much we inhale and exhale the same few molecules.

and, thus, we get that rare peek at the truth: we are all but a bundle of quirks and soft spots, we all get goosebumps when it’s cold, and our tummies growl when they’re empty. and beneath the physiologic kinship, we unfurl the thoughts and ideas that animate our imaginations, we hold our native lands up to the light, and we discover that the globe is a very small orb, and our hearts are at their glorious best when we remember once again how deeply connected we all really, truly are.

to say nothing of the rich parade of chocolate bugs that melt across your tongue, and leave a lingering sweetness that won’t go away anytime soon.

maybugs kitchen counter

the chocolate lady bugs, it turns out, are a may day tradition in germany, when kinder (that’s children) wake up to find a trail of tucked away “may bugs,” all begging to be found. not unlike our easter egg hunt, and similar in spirit to our long-ago may-day tradition of secretly dropping a basket of spring beauties on some unsuspecting someone’s doorstep, it’s a hide-and-seek i’m now adding to my annual repertoire. and every time, my heart — like the milky chocolate — will melt, thinking of dear beloved brilliant bernd. who made our april not dreary at all. despite the temps in the 30s and 40s, and the rains that would not go away.

do you have tales to tell of long-term hospitality, the gift of opening your home and finding a new inhabitant at the tenderest spot of your heart?

 

hole in my heart

soon, but not too soon, i will take down the welcome sign. i will tuck away all the index cards, our bridge back at the beginning, the guideposts that brought us together, each one a noun in english and german.

soon, but not too soon, i will figure out what to do with the big box of froot loops that now sits in the pantry. and the doritos beside it. the little boy who discovered both of those adventures in american eating, he is gone now.

i just took him to the train. i just cried a stream of tears that would not stop. i just walked back in to the emptiest house. a house that echoes with too much quiet now.

i can’t hear the scritch-scratch of his pencil, as he sat at the table each morning, writing his book, illustrating it. i can’t see the way his cheeks turn to pink when he laughs at me and my clumsy pronunciations. i can’t see his deep blue eyes, eyes like the sky on an april morning. i can’t see his smile, the wordless language that pulled us together. paper cards irrelevant, after all.

it had only been 10 days. but i found out, once again, you can fall in love in an instant.

especially when it’s a child who is in your care, tucked under your wing. especially when you discover, uncannily, the child is very much like you when you were a child.

my little friend from munster in germany carries with him wherever he goes stapled and folded pieces of plain white paper, his “books,” each one exquisitely hand-printed, and illustrated, the first letter of each chapter a postage-stamp-sized work of pencil-drawn art.

he has 20 books in all, so far, at home on his bedroom shelf, and it’s his daily practice to unfold his blue canvas pencil case and put no. 2 lead — in black or in colors — to paper.

“my dream,” he told me in his beautiful little-boy english, “is to be a writer.”

and so, every morning, for the past nine mornings, he and i would sit in bliss-soaked silence at the kitchen table, both of us writing for however many minutes the morning allowed. we carved out sacred time for a dream that both of us share, even though decades and miles and culture and gender might have made us, by ordinary measure, so far apart.

last night, when we took our sweet friend to the pancake house at the top of his must-do list, we asked him what he loved most about his visit to chicago. “your family,” he said, the words tumbling right out, without even a flash of a pause. “and the willis tower,” he said, second. “and the pancake house,” he said, wrapping up the short list.

he is too young, too pure, to have slanted those answers for the sake of diplomacy. i knew when he said it that the words sprang from his heart. and that’s why tears sprang in my eyes. because those words were a peek into his heart, into a heart that is rare, a heart that i came to treasure.

in 10 short days.

it started out, this adventure in trans-atlantic connection, as simply a chance to welcome a kid from far away. we had no clue who might come to our house. all we knew was that he would be german, and that we had an empty bed and a bathroom just for him.

and, now, the adventure behind us, we’ve all discovered, all over again, the miracle of falling in love. we’ve all remembered that love is something that happens without expectation. it’s pure surprise. it’s physical. it’s falling, like body through air. it’s not being able to stop. not planning the fall, not mapping the trajectory.

you just feel your heart opening wide, and kaboom, there you are, with all sorts of sparks and electrical currents surging through that place in your chest — if that’s where it dwells, really. if that’s where the love is tucked away, lined on the shelves, perhaps, wrapped inside itty-bitty boxes, each with a sumptuous bow, each ready to spring open, once the magic is airborne, is launched, once it does its unlocking, and the undiluted love escapes, twirls and whirls all through you, making your head spin, making you melt deep inside.

it’s not common, not something that happens, say, just because you like to laugh with the fellow ringing up your groceries. or because the lady down the block is pleasant when she walks by with her dog on a leash, when she looks up and waves.

love, it seems, is more demanding than that. it requires a plunge, diving deep beneath the surface. it requires exposure, peeling back the tough outer skin, revealing the place deep inside where the pulsing comes, where the dreams flow. where we say who we are, where we listen, where we discover a charm or a trinket, miracle or marvel, that schwoops us — both of our hearts — into a vacuum-sealed lock. one where age or country of origin dissolve into bits, don’t matter. we are merely two living, breathing, dreaming souls who discover that we understand each other in ways we never would have imagined.

and so it was, so it is, with my little friend and i.

and i’d never expected it.

and now, now that there’s no one to gobble the froot loops by the bowlful, now that my little one (the one still asleep in the bed at the top of the stairs) is left to plow through the snack-sized bags of doritos all by himself, i find i’m in need of a needle and thread here.

there is a hole in my heart this morning, one that already misses my sweet little friend at the kitchen table. misses the way he politely announced each night,  at minutes to nine, “i am tired, may i go to bed now?”  and awoke with a smile, and tousled blond hair, then climbed down the stairs awaiting his bowl and his spoon and his froot loops.

i’ve no one to sit with at the kitchen table. no one to write alongside. but now, in that hole in my heart, i’ve a treasure to tuck deep inside: i know there’s a beautiful boy, with writerly dreams, and pencils and papers. and wherever we go, whatever the day, no matter the thousands of miles away, he and i discovered together one of life’s unshakable secrets.

love doesn’t tell you it’s coming, doesn’t announce its destination. it merely up and entwines you, and forever thereafter, it is the thread that keeps you so deeply, unstoppably stitched at the hearts.

so that’s my fumbled attempt at mapping out love and the way it grabs us. how would you describe the fine art of falling in love, and when in your life has it happened?

the picture above is my little friend’s breakfast place, as it awaited him this morning, with a love note penned and perched in his bowl. “thank you for your words,” he said, after reading the love note, before pouring two last mounds of american froot loops.

how you say?

the index card, it turns out, is a benevolent slip of paper. scratch that; make it “essential.” the index card, goshdarnit, is wholly and utterly, upside down and sideways, an essential slip of paper.

singular or plural, the card — all alone, or in a stack — is not merely one hot commodity at our house this week.

it is, they are, three days into this experiment in trans-atlantic comradeship, our deeply-held lifeline, our saving grace, the very bridge between blank stares, jet-lagged silence, flat-out confusion, and bumbled attempts at groping for the missing word.

were it not for those blank-faced 3-by-5’s, we might still be standing by the fridge, the cold air swooshing out, trying to figure out if our little german friend was asking for the milk (Milch) or the juice (Saft). or, perhaps, all he wants is one shiny red apple (glänzender roter Apfel).

see how tangled this might make you?

for months now, ever since the german teacher sent home a note asking if anyone had a spare bedroom, or an extra place at the table, for a little german friend, our new-to-german fifth grader, a boy who just this school year found himself without a brother in the house, has been counting down the days, till his occasional penpal arrived from Deutschland.

and arrive he did the other afternoon, as that great blue-and-golden bird, the lufthansa 747 glided onto the runway, and unfurled our little friend.

he marched through customs, backpack on his slender shoulders, through the swinging doors and straight into our hearts, my little one’s and mine.

he is blond and sweet and oh-so-shy. he is not so certain of his english words, and we are nearly clueless when it comes to german. he giggles and his cheeks turn pink as i try to figure out the words, try hard to use the sounds that he uses when he says what’s what — time and time and time again.

so no wonder, then, that i have grown quite fond of my ever-dwindling stack of index cards, and pen and sticky tape.

before i’ve even bumped into a noun, i am grabbing for my card and pen, scribbling english, and awaiting its german twin.

thus, two tongue-tied boys and i, we’ve turned this house into a veritable post-it board, with white cards dangling from every surface, candlestick and knob. we’ve slapped a name on everything from OJ carton (remember now, that’s the Saft) to the morning’s newspaper (Zeitung).

it is a bit clumsy, of course, and makes for conversation interruptus. but, all in all, it works. and we are getting along, if not smoothly, well then beautifully and bumpily.

it is quite a gift (one that’s landed in our laps), we’ve swiftly discovered, to open up our house to a little lad from far away. it stretches the human heart in ways this world so deeply needs.

i shouldn’t be surprised to find that, yet again, my mama-hen instincts have kicked into high overdrive. i lie awake at night worrying about the little fellow. listening hard for any peep. i dash to the grocery store to fill the bins with everything i’ve figured out he likes (yes, salami, chocolate, and apples; no, to ham, bananas, raisins). and i ask him endlessly if he is tired (müde), hungry (hungrig), and Gut geschlafen (did he sleep well)?

i am, after two nearly sleepless nights, considering a simple cure for all the world’s ills: what if we left it to the mothers to construct a paradigm for peace?

what if we all reached our chubby hands into some global hat, and plucked out the names of other mother’s children? what if we took them in, for a week or two at a time, and felt the thump in our hearts as we worried over them, as we fed them, and smoothed their sheets?

what if we all struggled to not only learn each other’s words, but also to see the world through each other’s eyes? what if, deep in the dark of night, we heard a child whimper, a child who was not our own? what if we tore off our bedsheets and stumbled to where that sound came from, and pulled someone else’s sleepy child’s head into our own tender ample arms?

what if we loved each other’s children as if they were our own?

might that not glue this shattered globe back into the solid whole that it was meant to be?

i am thinking much about that as i stumble my way through these 10 clumsily translated days.

my little one has found a friend, one who doesn’t speak in paragraphs or even sentences at a time. but one who does speak the universal language of the soccer ball and smile.

and i’ve found, i do believe, an ancient and timeless truth: love a child, any child, and the keys to heaven belong to you.

even if that needs be scribbled on a humble index card —  liebe ein Kind, jedes Kind, und die Schlüssel zum Himmel gehöre zu dir.

have you ever found yourself feeling tender of the heart toward someone else’s holy blessed child?

no empty chairs

this is what it looks like at my house at the breakfast table, on the mornings when the chairs are filled. and the bench, too, lined up with little bottoms, squeezed in, squirming in the ways that little boys do.

this is what it looks like when the early-morning whispers wake me, when a bedroom’s filled with little boys, sleepy-eyed boys, boys who can’t help but look little in their waking-up moments, boys who by day are practicing being big. one of them even sports a cell phone. they all use it, communal cell.

they are little boys and they have come to inhabit not only my house, but my heart.

ever since the big one moved on to college, the little one seems to have decided that this is a sharing house, a house where more is better, more is most.

and so, come friday nights, or saturdays, little boys with sleeping bags and pillows (and the occasional cell phone) come stumbling in the door, tumble up the stairs. they play and run and giggle. much giggling.

they are shy, some of them. and polite, all of them. heart-piercingly so. they’ve not read the journals mourning the demise of innocence. they still blush, some of them, when i call them, “sweetie.”

but it’s okay. i’ve not been scolded, not yet anyway, for calling those little boys all sorts of oozy names.

those boys, in ones or twos or threes — and once, so help me God, a four — they animate this house, they lull me off to sleep with their whispers past the midnight hour, and they stir me in the morn when i hear the pillows rumble way before i expect to hear a sound.

a bedroom filled with little boys is a beautiful thing. is a thing i thought i’d never see.

when you’re the mother of two boys who span as many years as mine, you’ve not grown accustomed to the rolling, sprawling, tumbling of double-decker boys. you mostly watch them spin in passing orbits.

so this little one, this little one who springs to life when with his buddies, he seems to have ordered up the very prescription for all our hollowed-out hearts.

he skipped no beats in dialing up that first slumber fest, the first week beyond the college drop-off. nearly every weekend since, this house has doubled or tripled its population of boys.

and i could not purr more contentedly. i could not cluck more cluckily.

best of all is when the morning comes. and i get to mother henning, all right. i crack eggs. pour milk. add dashes of vanilla and cinnamon. i slide bacon in the oven (for we learned that roasted turkey bacon, sprinkled with a dash of brown sugar, maybe rosemary, vulcan salt when the college kid comes back, is not only splatter-free but perfect to the tooth).

i set that table with a vengeance. just like in the old days, before the college boy was gone. i slap down forks, knives, spoons. in multiples. i line up glasses. set out jugs of juice.

and then the footsteps come. less a pitter-patter than a galump down the stairs. and there they are, the sleepy-eyed, pink-cheeked little boys, lined up by the cookstove. taking what i offer. always saying thank you.

sweet boys, these boys.

that’s when the old maple table springs to life. it is crowded, along each edge. arms are grabbing, passing, oops, sometimes spilling. but no worries here.

i know, through and through, that a house where food is good, is plentiful, is a house to which the gaggle will return.
and i want those boys to grow up here. i want to be a seamless part of their unfolding before my very eyes.

i want them to think of me as that nice lady who looks them in the eye, who can’t help but love them. who knows their favorite cookie. who knows who drinks milk and who does not.

i believe with all my heart that mothering extends far beyond the womb, far beyond any particular connection to any particular womb.

mothering is just another name for a certain brand of love. in my book, the most resilient love. the deepest, purest, most unbreakable love there ever was.

mothers don’t give up on their young. they wring their hands, they wrack their brains. but they get up the next morning and they ply it all again.

over the years i’ve heard tales of grown-up folk who found the mothering they needed at someone else’s house. of the certain pair of ears who listened in a way that no one did at home. who loved without sting. who set another place at the table, no matter how late the hour, how empty the fridge.

i know, because i’ve watched one crew grow up, head off to college, that once in a while even the greatest, finest, smartest kids can stumble into tight places and not quite know the way out.

i’ve been the mama who at 2 a.m. drove a car full of kids where they needed to be, to get there safely, no questions asked. no scolding, thank you.

i’ve lived to hear that that middle-of-the-night ride was the single thing that made one kid realize you can grow up without the need to hide the truth, tell lies. and ever since, he’s been a new kind of kid. a kid who still pulls up a stool at my kitchen counter, who still tells me stories he might not tell at home.

and now, with this little gaggle underfoot, still not big enough to cross a busy street without a grownup worrying, still not savvy enough to call a girl and not spit out laughing, i’ve got another chance, another round of kids to love as if my own.

i might not have birthed the 13 or six or even three i longed to mother, but my little one has fixed all that.

he fills my kitchen table most weekend mornings. and i have every intention of being mama to them all. i start now with french toast, and loads of maple syrup.

soon enough, i hope, i pray, i’ll be the house they run to, when there’s no one else to listen.

in my book, there oughta be a nobel prize for mothering. and we’d all win. all of us, and i know throngs, who have discovered deep inside that the one pure hope for civilization, for humankind, is to raise our young–the ones we birth, the ones we don’t–with every reason to believe there will be kindness, and honesty, and undying love just around the corner. the one where some big-hearted mama is just waiting to make it all all right.

who was the big mama in your life? the one who loved you unconditionally, who loved you through and through. (and always threw an extra cookie on your cookie plate…)

always, an open door

it is, of all the parts of this old house, the one that might just matter the most. it’s the one, surely, that sends the loudest message.

it is the door, the front door. and at our house it is mostly glass, so you can see what bubbles on the inside, and i can see out. so life pulses through the glass.

there is not, decidedly not, one of those little signs the village passes out: no solicitors invited.

oh, it’s not that i like talking about magazine subscriptions that just might send a kid to college. and it’s not that i like it when the doorbell rings just as i am stirring dinner.

but i refuse to have the first thing you see at my door be the sound of words slamming in your face. go away, not interested in strangers. hardly the tone i care to broadcast before you even ring the bell.

and, besides, i do like talking to strangers. especially kids who have ventured beyond the streets that they know well, and are maybe scared to shaking walking here where doors are always slamming.

but the open door i’m thinking about today is the one that is extended far beyond the front stoop. it’s the open door that means i am always at the ready for whoever comes this way, for whoever has a tale to tell, and needs someone to listen.

it is, i think, the highest calling of a house. to be a place of utter comfort. to be a place that oozes, “sit here, tell me all your troubles.”

it is why, in the first place, we stack the logs, put out pillows, make sure that there’s the softest, warmest blanket we can find. it’s why the pantry holds a basket full of teas, and the clementines are plenty.

first and foremost, a house brings peace to those who dwell there. but if that door is never open, if we don’t usher in a stranger, then a house is merely shelter. and not a place of holy respite.

it is the invitation that never ends. my house is your house. without the two of us to dance, the heartbeat fades away, evaporates to lonely.

just today, any hour now, there will be a woman at that door. a woman i barely know. i’ve only met her once. but her heart broke and cracked and shattered recently, and she’s trying to gather up the pieces.

she was pregnant with a baby girl just this summer past. and when they did an ultrasound, the kind they always do, not in search of any trouble, they found that baby girl had a hole where her diaphragm should be. so all her insides, the ones that should be in the belly, were pushed up by her lungs.

the baby girl was born, fighting just to breathe. and one month later, the baby girl died, right before thanksgiving.

her mama, strong and gentle all at once, survived the holidays. she has two little boys, so her hands, she says, are always busy.

but her heart can barely contain the bleeding that comes from burying a baby.

and so she comes, quite simply, to unspool her unending sorrow. she comes to try to ease the clenching in her chest.

it is in the telling of our stories, often, that the healing begins to come. it is in looking up through tears and seeing another face. a pair of eyes, a heart, absorbing all there is to be absorbed.

sometimes we are called upon to be a human swab for all the ache that cannot be bound inside one single heart.

sometimes we need only listen.

sometimes what is shared across a tear-splashed kitchen table is the very blessed act of kindling just a single wick of light where there’d been only darkness.

but if the door is sometimes closed, then how can sorrow enter, and begin to ease toward healing?

the open door, i’m convinced, is most essential for a house to be a holy place where hearts are stitched with hope, and two heartbeats rise in sacred echo–one promising the other that peace will come again.

do you find yourself sometimes across the table from someone who needs to tell their story? do you find it easy to forget that the purpose of a door is to be opened? what rites and rituals do you make a part of your home to make the stranger–or the friend–feel wholly welcome?

a prayer for the grownups of children who struggle

prayer for grownups children struggle

this is communal. there is, far as i can tell, not a soul who doesn’t at one time or another come into the ranks. there is no corner, sadly, on this market. no me-me-me thinking you are the only one who knows what it is to lie deeply awake–and not that you’re counting the holes in the ceiling.

hardly.

you’re racking your heart and your soul and your brain, even your belly, trying to figure out, devise some plot, to push back the struggles that threaten to swallow your little one. or maybe your big one.

you are no less than moses at the red sea, i tell you. you and your rod, standing there, palms raised, as if.

as if you, who does not possess any magical powers, can reach into the brain of a very young person, reach in and straighten some wires. get synapses connected. make them see. make them hear. make them not be afraid. make the letters that spill on the page line up in some sort of sense. instead of backwards and jumbled and utterly, thoroughly awful. so misbehaved, that alphabet.

as if–oh, God, please–you could stand in the halls or the lunchroom, or off to the edge of the playground. make the mean kids go away. stop the big ones from picking on little ones. or the other way around. splinter the words being hurled, the ones that are ugly and poison and might sting forever.

it is hell and it’s lonely besides.

barely a soul is willing to advertise the truth of the matter: not a one of us is merrily sitting back, watching little people skitter through life. as if it’s a pond and they were on skates and they’re gliding. making true loopdy-loops.

nope, i am no researcher, or taker of census. i have not knocked on doors asked, excuse me, is there suffering here?

but chances are good to better than good, the answer is yes. very much so. why, thank you for asking.

in my own little world, in just the last week, for instance, i’ve heard all of this: a child who tried to jump out a window. twice. one who died. one who can’t hear very well and it’s making her mad. you would be too. if all day you struggled to make out the words on everyone’s lips. and the lips didn’t move very slowly. not at all.

i’m not done: a boy afraid to turn out the light. another who won’t. a child who cannot see the big picture and hold onto a small fragile thread. it’s one or the other. and sometimes you really need both.

there’s a girl who keeps having seizures; no one knows why. but do you think, for a minute, her mother rests easy, whenever she’s not in her sight, whenever the phone rings? there are two boys who are watching their lives rip in half, as their parents divorce and it’s not always pretty. and two girls i know who won’t eat. no more than an apple cut in very thin slices. and she’s the one making progress.

my point here is not to make you feel drowning. my point here is just to take a deep breath. whisper a prayer. maybe think twice when you next feel alone. when you happen to think you can’t bear it. when the waves of your worry, and your lack of solutions, pull you down under.

i got to this notion the way i usually do. i thought and i thought. i listened and looked and tucked away stories. i jimmied my heart to the wide-open valve.

and all week i rode the waves of a sea that’s not far from despair. there is a boy who i love who is utterly stumped by parts of the school day. the parts where the words and the pencils are. in first grade, as you might imagine, that is a fairly good chunk of the day.

it is, at this point, still a mystery. as if there’s a fog that isn’t yet lifted. we can’t quite make out the landscape. i asked him last night, when word after word was coming out backwards, what it felt like inside. he took his hands and scrambled them all through the air. i heard my heart crack then.

and i know that that crack is not only mine. i know it rises up from the houses, all over the towns, all over the hillsides and valleys below. all over the world.

it would be headlines, i suppose, if there were a house where never a worry there was. or maybe the grownups in charge are made of something other than my flimsy cloth.

i am not, however, one to cave in to worry. no, i find it a friend. an ally, in fact. it stirs me, propels me, gives me whatever it takes, to take on the very steep climb up the waters that will not be stilled.

the prayer that i pray then is this: that even in the depths of our darkest night shadows, when all that we fear comes out of the closets, leaps ‘round the bed, bangs on the pillows, we might picture each other. know the communion of trembling hands. hearts that will not surrender.

that whatever it is that haunts and plagues all of our children be kneaded away. by heads that are wise. and hearts that are deep and filled with infinite chambers.

that we don’t wrestle alone. that the great and tender hand of our God settles quite firmly at the small of our backs. fills our lungs, too, with the breath that it takes to blow back the winds that are chilling. settles the waters. gives us a chance, and a hope, of making the climb, to the crest of the wave.

where, if we’re so blessed, we can look out at a sea of children who have managed to swim. and are stroking and breathing. and making a magnificent splash.

that’s what i pray.

how about you?

a candle for georgie…

phone rang a little while ago. asking for more than a prayer. there’s a little guy, his name is georgie, he’s 9. he is fighting for his life tonight. his mama, a saint among us, is an old dear friend of mine. she’s at his side at children’s memorial as i type. she and his papa, another saint, are keeping watch. georgie is an angel, surrounded by saints. he’s been struggling his whole life long. most recently, most unfairly. if you kneel down tonight, whisper his name in your prayers. if you don’t kneel, please whisper his name anyway. they could use a flicker of light in their darkness.