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Category: power of words

the compound interest of love

 

the arithmetic of love cannot be plotted, nor graphed. nor queued in a line. it explodes, scattershot. sometimes it leaks — drip, drip, drip. sometimes, like a mountain rivulet running hard against rock, it carves its own escape route.

at its most glorious, love multiplies with compound interest.

the email began: “Praying it forward haha.” it went on to explain:

Praying it forward haha – I gave a copy of the book to Lisa because I admire her so much as a Mother, friend, caregiver, person.  After meeting her for lunch and giving her the book she shared that she was looking for work she could do at home – we were looking for someone to do our social media and not so surprisingly she had recently received a degree in that!  Of course we hired her.  She prayed it forward by giving 10 of her friends the book and now here you are – Found!  Lets keep the movement.

the email was from my friend susie, who happens to be a saint. she’s opened two cafes for at-risk teens, one mostly for young men who’ve gotten in trouble and are trying now to stay out. the other for young women; teens who are pregnant, or already mothers. susie gave my book to lisa, who also happens to be a saint. lisa was a social worker who became a chicago cop who was so heartbroken by the homelessness she saw in uptown, a tough chicago neighborhood, she started pulling a sandwich-and-coffee-filled red wagon along the sidewalks to feed whomever she bumped into who might be hungry. then, she opened a cafe, inspiration cafe, to feed their spirits as well as their bellies. but then, two years ago, her then-23-year-old son suffered a still-unexplained anoxic brain injury, which means that a kid with a slight fever somehow collapsed, which stopped his heart long enough to cut off the oxygen to his brain. ever since, lisa has been his full-time, round-the-clock caregiver.

and yet, lisa, when given a single copy of motherprayer, and a work-from-home job for my friend susie, “prayed it forward” by buying and sending copies of motherprayer to 10 friends. one of those friends, a fairy-like sweetheart named wini, wrote to me a few weeks ago. in a breathtaking note, she explained that for some reason she’d not tucked motherprayer into her permanent stack of (mostly untouched) bedside books, but rather she’d picked it up and started to read. she said her friend lisa had sent it, and she figured if it came from lisa, there must be a reason to read it. she wondered a.) how i knew lisa (i didn’t, though i’d known of her cafe and her saintly status in this city of big shoulders),  b.) if maybe we could meet, and c.) maybe would i consider coming to a spectacular space (opened by her friend amy, a famed chicago restaurateur) to talk to a circle of spectacular women. she was thinking, she said, of restarting a soulful speaker series she once ran for eight years. she was thinking she’d call this new series, “finding your heart at Found,” (Found is the name of the spectacular eatery, a place that feels like your favorite eccentric aunt’s quirkily appointed parlor). and then she wondered if maybe i’d consider following up that lunchtime talk with a soulful writing workshop at a heavenly place called tumbledown farm, owned by another one of her heavenly friends, yet another lisa.

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a scene from tumbledown farm. (photo by Lisa Moser)

 

if you’ve clicked on all of those links i’ve tucked up above, you can see quite clearly why i was and am pinching myself. kindness led to kindness led to miracle led to long-held-dream-finally-come-true.

i will soon be sitting in a farm kitchen, with the sounds of summer and barnyard blowing in through the windows, and i’ll be encircled by blessed women writing into their depths. we’ll punctuate the morning with walks through meadows, plop down against the trunks of trees, chase after chickens. partake of farm-fresh feasting.

sounds magical to me.

and until the email from susie arrived yesterday, the whole tumble of wonders was shrouded in mystery. how did saintly lisa know of motherprayer? how was it that she sent a copy to wini, a woman schooled in healing arts, a woman with the get-up-and-go to have shepherded eight years of soulful speakers (and we’re talking richard rohr here)? and how was it that after years and years of dreaming of somehow finding my way to the blessing of writing circles, and writing into the depths of the human heart, one door had opened into another, and a farm of my dreams — one with roosters and beehives and a cavernous milking barn — had fallen onto my path?

i looked back at the email from susie, i read and re-read that first line: “Praying it forward haha…”

i knew exactly how i wanted to do that, to pray it forward: i’m starting a writing circle for the teen mamas at susie’s cafe (the pictures above were taken there last night at their monthly community dinner, where susie treats everyone like a queen or a king), and i’m imagining a writing circle-slash-monthly-retreat for mothers who are full-time, round-the-clock caregivers for children with profound challenges. (susie, too, has a sister patty, who i love, and who loves writing, and who is the full-time, round-the-clock caregiver for her daughter who has cerebral palsy.) i am, in my imagination, upholstering the writing retreat with every imaginable pampering: fat bouquets of fresh-from-the-garden bunches of flowers, pitchers of waters swimming with slices of lemon and sprigs of fresh mint, sumptuous lunch. crisp, paper-wrapped journals and pens for writing from the heart. a few deep questions, questions meant to uncork all that’s waiting to pour. and more than anything, the holy communion of other mothers who shoulder the same unceasing load of worry and ache and innovation and unstoppable faith. and exhaustion. and a loneliness that’s unfathomable to anyone not bearing the load.

the wheels have already turned, plans are already in the works. because at the heart of this plot are women who heard the holy whisper and made the miracle happen, women who would not and will not be stopped. so neither will i.

it’s the compound interest of love.

“Praying it forward haha..”

there’s your challenge. no need to answer aloud, but maybe, just maybe, let that sweet question settle deep in your heart: how might you pray it forward?

because i know the chairs are soulful folk, i’m thinking that when the time comes i might put out a call for help. perhaps you’ve a few stems from your garden you’d like to share for a fat bouquet. perhaps you make a mean scone. or might dream up some other wonderful way to pamper the mamas for whom a break never comes. (we could make goodie bags, stuffed with pamper-y treats.) i’m thinking i’ll hold the first writing circle for caretaking mamas at my house, in my screened porch this summer. getting away is not easy for these mamas, and going too far is impossible. so we’ll make it short and sweet and close to home. if we wend our way into an irrestistable  bond, maybe we’ll take our circle on the road, and tumble down to tumbledown farm, which is but 45 minutes away. 

p.s. for the fun of it, and to make it easier to follow the trail of good hearts, i bolded the names of each someone who led to another someone in the equation of unbridled love up above. and be sure, while you’re at it, to click on the links (any words underlined and the color of cafe-au-lait) to read layers and layers of goodness from the very good souls up above.

p.s.s. happy blessed birthday tomorrow to slj, an old dear friend of the chair. may your day and your year be filled with compound love.

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a nest on tumbledown farm. reminds me of the cover of a book i know fairly well. be still my heart, most blessed heart…(Photo by Lisa Moser)

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?

riveted

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night after night, we took our places, however many of us happened to be home. we all had our props, tea mugs or ice cream alongside iterations of screens, small, smaller and smallest. as the night blackened outside the windows, one shared rectangle glowed: for the last two weeks, our portrait of the american family has been the four of us huddled around the modern-day campfire that is the tv blaring the national conventions, both of them. we take religion and politics in two flavors in this house, so we are by definition bi-partisan. because we watch knowing there is more than one brand of lens in this house (it’s the college kid who went off to school emphatically one way, came home another), we train our ears and our minds and our hearts on common ground.

it makes for truly compelling watching. no knee-jerk reactions allowed. and civility, doled out in carefully thought words, honestly asked questions, is the one abiding premise. fact-checking has become a family sport.

what compelled me the most, what i can’t get enough of, can’t stop thinking about was the oration. the power to put breath to words and bellow them across the seas of cheering (or jeering) souls in the seats of the arenas, both the Q in cleveland and the wells fargo center in philly. i found myself as rapt by the voices clearly not used to the national stage as i was by some of the ones whose road to glory and office was paved by the power to put heart and soul into political story.

IMG_7933i admit to tears — tears when the muslim immigrant father pulled his shiny copy of the Constitution from the pocket beneath his impeccably-pressed suit jacket. tears when his hajib-shrouded wife, the gold star mother of their fallen soldier son, stood by his side, without saying a word, looking as if this stage might be the last place in the world she wanted to be, except that deep in her heart she had a son whose story she would not let be silenced. the goosebumps began when the father, in his halting english, tinged with middle-east lilt, recounted how immediately after migrating to the u.s. from the united arab emirates he’d taken his three sons to visit the jefferson memorial. the father recited the words, the ones etched in white Georgia marble, jefferson’s words swearing “hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man,” that so spoke to his son, whose name was Humayun, the son who had grown up to be a soldier and who died in iraq, an army captain who charged into death to save his soldiers. on june 8, 2004, when an explosives-laced taxi barreled through the gate of the army base he was there to protect, Capt. Humayun Khan told his soldiers to hit the dirt while he ran 10 steps toward the taxi, 10 steps before the car bomb exploded. the son, who had dreamed of becoming a military lawyer, is now buried, with bronze star and purple heart, in arlington national cemetery.

in case you missed the father’s words, and the moment he pulled out his pocket-edition of the Constitution, i’ve saved it for you here.

i was covered in a whole other kind of goosebumps when michelle obama took the high road, when she spoke through the lens of a mother, a mother teaching her daughters grace and grit in equal measure, it seems. and joe biden. oh, joe! and the president, as he so often has, had me in tears, streaming-down tears.

night after night, i felt my soul rise, and my heart pick up its pace. the voices and stories, the hands trembling, even the clearing of one history-making throat, all of it drew me in, gave me reason to hope. made me think — in the recounting of deeply intimate stories from mothers of slain sons and daughters, in the rising crescendo of preachers soaked in their own perspiration — that deep in the heart of all of this is a religion not bound by party or nation. it’s the majestic, indomitable, sometimes suffering human spirit, the one that given half a chance will reach for the light, will shimmy toward the crack where the air comes in.

it’s the stories of forgiveness, it’s the stories of wives and children kissing their daddy goodbye one last time, not knowing it was the last, not till later when some terrible knock came to the door, it’s the words pinned to those unforgettable moments, those moments when the human spirit stands to be crushed, but somehow, some way, it’s not. it catches some updraft, finds courage and voice, and rises again. rises to heights it hadn’t imagined.

for the last two weeks, we’ve heard story tumbled atop story. we’ve seen glimpses of the human spirit at its most soaring, and we’ve heard visions that make us tremble in fear. it’s the quadrennial amalgam of hope and awakening. now what we need is plenty of prayer.

which voices, which stories, which moments, are the ones that linger for you? 

(and a point of clarification: the kid who went off to college as president of the new trier young democrats and came home otherwise is not, repeat not, a backer of the republican presidential nominee. the kid is all about reasoned discourse, and deeply held founding principles. his respect is reserved — on both side of the aisle — for those rare few who abide by those immutable pillars of democracy.) 

and, finally, yes i note the irony in just last week saying i don’t write about politics here; i’m trying to thread a very fine needle here, and divine the sacred thread of human triumph and suffering and courage and grace when it’s thrust on a national stage — yes, the national political stage. it’s a belief that beneath the bluster there is something deeply, powerfully human that must be paid serious attention. and i abstain from divisiveness.

photo credits: (top) Josh Haner for the New York Times; (parents of Capt. Humayun Khan) Damon Winter for the New York Times

civility matters

ailes out

i never write about politics here at the chair, and i’m not about to do so now. so let me begin by simply saying that the most hopeful bit of front-page news today was not “above the fold,” as we say in the newspaper biz. rather, it was down below, “below the fold,” in the story you see pictured above.

roger ailes is out at fox news. beneath and beyond that firing there are promises that the culture of that broadcast operation will be examined, and scrubbed. will all the screaming end? will the baseless accusations, the twistings of untruths screech to a halt? i can only hope. but maybe, maybe, it will all be toned down a decibel or five. maybe they’ll find a way to deliver a rightful perspective, a deeply-held position, without resorting to hate mongering and wholesale riddling of heart and soul and reputation.

forge on fox news: call a spade a spade, as you see it. deplore numbers, so long as they’re based on sound study, derived from solid research. express opinion. but, please, employ the art of listening. employ civility.

and stop screaming while you’re at it.

some 10 years ago, perusing the banana aisle in my nearby grocery store, i ran into one of the great newsmen of the day, the former managing editor of the chicago tribune, an ex-marine who wore his shirt sleeves cropped at the biceps, who was known to be more exuberant in his dealings after lunch than before, whose eye for injustice and smarmy dealings was unparalleled (especially when fixed on the dark side of chicago politics). he paused in his own perusal of banana bunches to bark words at me that have stayed with me ever since: “everybody’s talking these days, no one’s listening anymore.”

that’s old news by now, but back when he said it — not long after the explosion of the blogosphere, where anyone who could type could suddenly claim a chunk of cyber-real estate and blather on endlessly — it made me stop and notice. it made me re-up my commitment to the art of listening (back in nursing school, we devoted a whole semester to a course that boiled down to listening, the art thereof.) it made me insist that here at the chair we’d be civil, we’d be kind. and, yes, it made me vow to keep my eye trained on the hearts and souls that are the truth behind even the crustiest of bloviators.

what had always irked me most about fox news wasn’t the point of view, but the gloves-off approach that had one talking head shouting at another. that spewed invective as if cruel words alone would spike the almighty nielsen ratings. and then it wasn’t long till the other cable channels took notice, began to do the same. i can barely watch CNN anymore, for all the shouting, all the overdrive that drowns out half the words.

as cable news fueled the trough, so too did all the divisiveness creep into the u.s. capitol, and statehouses across the land. so too did it creep into online posts and chats, even on pages devoted to common cause or shared geography.

i know, because this isn’t my natural realm, that my words here are too facile, my thoughts not finely chiseled enough, but i’m willing to risk exposure to that criticism to say my heart is crushed — day after day, hour upon hour sometimes — by the rampant disintegration of civility. the swirling down the drain of the art of listening. the understanding that no one wins when we all walk away bruised and bleeding.

if there was one moment in the recent awful primary campaign that broke my heart the most it was the moment i now see played and replayed in one political commercial: the moment where the republican nominee is seen flapping his hands, mocking a reporter with a disability. and doing so in front of a jeering, cheering crowd. have we come to that? and if we have, how much lower can we go?

because i won’t give up on the belief that good outweighs awful, that love can regain ground, i woke up to hope this morning as i heard the news that not only was ailes — a man alleged to have demanded sexual favors in return for job promotion — out as chairman and chief executive, the sons of rupert murdoch (who imagined he’d ever be cast in the hero role?), now at the helm, would be examining the culture ailes had injected, infected into fox, and they’d launch a “wide-ranging overhaul.”

if fox can clean up its act, there’s hope. if just one iota of civility can trickle in, can regain ground…

i’ve been shell-shocked much of these recent weeks. inclined to hole away in my garden. to submit to the song of the wren rather than the bloviations and horrors of the news around me (though my newsier instincts inevitably lure me to the screens, to watch, to read, to try to grasp at least faint outlines). i keep my head down, steer clear of all the tussling and jabbing i find online. i’ve come to think i’m just plain allergic to incivilities.

so if roger ailes is out, it’s one for civility. and decency. and honor. and maybe, just maybe we can regain ground. those of us who fear that all around us toxins fill the air. those of us who will not surrender to incivility, and word by word hold our holy ground.

your thoughts? how do you retrench from incivility? and more essentially how do you sow goodness, kindness, love?

pilgrimage to the land of poets – and spring peepers, while we’re at it

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a short interlude of my poetry bookshelf (alphabetical by poet, of course)

i’m told tales of folks who slip their finery off their boudoir shelves, who tuck silks and satins into trunks and valises. i’m told they jet off to faraway places, wiggle their toes in pure white sands. sip intoxicants adorned with wee paper parasols and wedges of papaya. then, i’m told, they manage to find their way home, whole again.

i’d not know from such exotica. and i doubt it’d do much besides break me out in patchy hives.

i, in sharp contrast, am yanking out a sweater or three, tucking them alongside my toothbrush. i’ll pack a stash of honeycrisp apples (an upgrade for the occasion) and piles of reporter’s notebooks, then slide behind the wheel of my old red wagon, and motor my way to grand rapids, smack dab in the palm of the mitten state just to the north and the east of my land of lincoln. i’ll hole up for three days of prayerful prose and poetry, and thinking way beyond the quotidian box.

it’s called the festival of faith and writing, and it’s a poet’s idea of heaven on earth. especially if you take your poetry infused with a dollop of holy. it’s an every-other-year consortium where the mystical meets iambic pentameter, or more likely the freest of free verse. it’s a forget-about-lunch, who-needs-sleep, dawn-till-midnight fill-your-lungs-with-real-life-bylines-who-make-you-swoon jamboree.

this year it’s where tobias wolff and george saunders (professor and protege, respectively, long ago at syracuse university) will put heads together for a public tete-a-tete. where dani shapiro, memoirist and essayist, will “insist that sorrow not be meaningless.” and where poet scott cairns will mine eastern orthodox liturgy to “clear a pathway through the slings and arrows of modern life.” ashley bryan, the 92-year-old children’s book author and illustrator, will illuminate the art-making behind his collections of black american spirituals for children. and, before the first day’s dinner hour, i’ll sit down in a small room to listen to christian wiman, guggenheim fellow, former editor of poetry magazine, now senior lecturer in divinity and literature at yale’s divinity school, read poems from every riven thing, or passages from my bright abyss: meditation of a modern believer, which the new republic called “an apologia and a prayer, an invitation and a fellow traveler for any who suffer and all who believe.” before i nod off, i’ll whirl in the incantatory vapors of zadie smith who will ponder the question, “why write?”

yes, by day, i’ll binge on words and thoughts that stir the soul, and, often, put goosebumps to the flesh (the surest sign i know that God’s in the neighborhood). and then at night, i’ll make my escape to a historic inn, where a room under the eaves will be my hideaway. and where i’ll forego dreams for the sheer joy of turning pages upon pages, all while plopped atop my featherbed. or perhaps i’ll shrivel like a prune in the depths of my victorian claw-footed tub.

and it just might be the surest cure for my tattered soul.

as i did two years ago, i’ll be taking copious notes, and promise to report back next week, with all the snippets and moments that make me woozy.

but, of all the poetry the days will bring, the one i’m most awaiting is wholly otherworldly, and not propelled to sound waves by human breath. it’s amphibian, as a matter of fact: the wee spring peepers, whose dissonant and deafening nightsong, rising from a blur of woods, stopped me more than anything i’d heard two years ago april.

back then, i described the soul-perking moment thusly:

the moon was half both nights, or nearly so. the sky, a western michigan sodden blue. the daylight not yet rinsed out. the night shadow inking in. and then, from the lacy backdrop of leafless woods, the rising vernal chorus of the spring peepers, that amphibian night song that breaks you out in goosebumps — or it does me, anyway. it’s a froggy croak — a high-pitched rendition, indeed — i’d not heard since trying to fall asleep in the upstairs dormer of my husband’s boyhood home, where the backyard pond and its full-throated citizens lull me to dreamland with their percolating melodies. i wanted to record a few bars for you, so you too could share the goosebumps. instead, i offer this, borrowed from the land of internet.

listen in to the peepers for now, and i’ll be back next week, to pour forth the very best i tuck into my writerly notebooks.

and a bit of poetic amuse-bouche till then:

A Word
BY SCOTT CAIRNS

For A.B.

She said God. He seems to be there
when I call on Him but calling
has been difficult too. Painful.

And as she quieted to find
another word, I was delivered
once more to my own long grappling

with that very angel here — still
here — at the base of the ancient
ladder of ascent, in foul dust

languishing yet at the very
bottom rung, letting go my grip
long before the blessing.

Source: Poetry (July/August 2013).

if you imagined a getaway for the soul, a stretch of days to soothe and restore, where would you go? what would you ink into your itinerary? 

and, p.s., happy blessed birthday to my mother-of-heart, ginny, the most loyal reader of the chair that ever there was. and happy one day late to my little ellabellabeautiful! 

four score and so many tears

it wasn’t on our way. but we steered there anyway.

a red-lined triangle on the roadmap was all that it took. that and what turned into a few hours’ drive through the mountains, in the rain, with no shoulder to the right, and big trucks barreling by on the left.

and there was that boy in the back seat, after all, the boy who’d learned all the words, who’d traced the story of the president who’d ended slavery, and who somehow had decided that to settle his own hard-thumping heart, he’d needed to slip the soles of his shoes into the very same spot on the crest of the hill in the midst of the half-circles of square white stones, unmarked graves, state-by-state in the somberest of roll calls, where the words first were bellowed over the stretched-out limbs of the forever-sleeping soldiers.

it was the gettysburg address, three short paragraphs really, that he’d learned at school, read out loud in assembly, recited one night at dinner, delightfully reading “deducted” instead of “dedicated” each time he came to that particular mix of d’s and c’s and t’s that, after all, is so indistinguishable to an orator of a mere seven years.

and so, since we were driving to washington anyway, he figured, why not swing up into pennsylvania, that breadloaf-shaped chunk in the jigsaw puzzle, not far from the d,c, triangle, and drive to the little town where the great speech was etched into the national memory.

it wasn’t enough, on that chilly cold afternoon, to merely drive through the town, stand in some parking lot, marked visitor center, and rip out the sheet with the words.

oh, no.

we stopped for a map, and directions. we wiggled our way through farm fields once soaked in blood. we parked near the crest of a hill, walked past long stone fences, crossed a country road, and walked and walked until we couldn’t get closer to where ol’ abe’s shoes must have fallen, stood firm against the hard cold soils that had seen and heard too much, and now at last were being laid to rest and peace and the broadcloth of history.

the little boy, one who most of the time spouts numbers and news about ballfields and the players who play there, somehow had been transfixed by these words and this speech and this spot on the map.

there was no steering him elsewhere. no approximation of history.

he’d decided it had to be just as it was. had to be him reading the words out loud, to the cold winds, and the three grownups (his big brother, after all, is nearly a grownup) who love him so very much, who stood somewhat astonished at this whole insistence on honoring history.

he’d carried along a parchment, written in script, signed “Abraham Lincoln, November 19, 1863,” but he couldn’t make out the 19th-century swirls and dips and swoops of soot-black ink.

so, when we’d stopped for the map, he’d handily gotten the words typed-out, more to his liking, more like the pages of books he now reads by the hour, this boy who not long ago struggled with words in any old form.

so there we were at the top of the hill, just in front of the great marble monument, with the plaque marking the spot.

the boy, seven and change, settled in, maybe as lincoln had; pulled the words from his pocket, unfolded the ridges, began.

“four score,” he started, of course. and then carried on. the words coming in that familiar cadence and rhythm we all know, all of us who in some schoolroom somewhere pored over the civil war pages, tried our hand at memorizing, maybe for the very first time, with this particular passage.

somewhere, though, near the part where lincoln wrote that “we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground,” the words slowed to nearly a halt.

we looked in, each of us, zeroed our eyes on his face, trying to read the root of the slowed-down reading.

only then, as the next few words sputtered, did i see what i thought looked like a tear. and then another and another.

he was crying and reading, the boy who would not let the tears stop the cadence, the moment, not till the end when we all crushed him, a tangle of arms, cheeks, tears.

“sweetheart what is it?” i asked, not sure if it was that the hard words had netted his courage, swallowed his sense of the moment, or whether it was the sad truth of the story, the soldiers buried in half moons and lines all around.

“it’s the soldiers.” he managed to choke out in short few syllables, before burying his face in my sleeve.

we all stood in this knot for a minute or two. i knew that i, for one, was etching the moment into my mind, into my picture of this boy who i’d birthed, this boy who not often was thought of as the one with his pulse in sync with the poetry of a world marred by bloodshed and tombstones.

sometimes on a cold afternoon, at the crest of history, you discover the script that you’ve dotted and crossed in your head, the script of your very own child, it’s not what you thought it was.

and you stand there, wiping back tears, his and your own. and all of a sudden you understand a whole new chapter’s been written.

one you will never forget.

nothing earth-shattering here. just a page in the scrapbook, titled “our road trip to washington,” it’s been a long long time since we went away for spring break. all the cats in the ‘hood bore a bit of a shock since over the years we’ve evolved into the de facto cat sitters. as always, it’s splendid to be home and back at the keyboard (and washing machine, and the checkout line at the grocery), but, of all years, this was a fine one to brush against the white house gate. criss-crossing the country we listened to obama on tape, both books, and to hear the depth of the man–and the wisdom he piles into but one clause of one sentence, let alone 10 hours of books-on-tape–well, it made the 1,500-some miles whiz by in what seemed like mere minutes.
now, back to the laundry.