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

Category: savoring moments

telling time

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listen in: tick tock chime 

in this old house, bed linens are worn thin. old quilts bare their threads. spoons stir porridge for decades. chairs are passed from generation to generation. in the right slant of light, you can make out particular dents in the old kitchen table, where long ago, my third-grade self, or one of my brothers, pressed pencil to homework to maple slab, and the addition in columns, the ill-formed alphabet letters of some week’s spelling words, still stand. even the potato masher in this old house bears the weight of half a century — at least.

new things aren’t often acquired here. but we made room last week for an old, old clock. a new-to-us old clock. a beehive clock, it’s called. with westminster chimes. and from the very first gong, it’s felt as if it’s ever been here. right away, it lulled me. made me feel even more at home.

it chimes every quarter hour, the progression of chimes compounding with every passing slice of the hour, for a total of 96 chimes in a day. and when the minute hand points heavenward, points due north, it gongs the big ben gong, one for each accumulated hour, of course.

it sounds to me like honey dripping across a slice of poundcake. or molasses poured onto flapjacks, if sound came with pictures. velvety, smooth, utterly unruffled and unruffling. it’s the very definition of soothing. it might sound, in its quieter intervals, the ones where it’s merely ticking and tocking, like water dripping. because i’ve been reading all about clocks, i understand why i hear the water-drop sounds. in ancient times, back near the beginning of measured time, the greeks devised a water clock, realizing that the drips fell at a particular rate per hour, and thus could be harnessed for time-telling purposes.

i tried to find out if there was some physiologic connection between the sound of time ticking and the workings of the human body, the heart perhaps. i’ve not yet found my answer, but i have a hunch: the sound of a ticking clock is the closest we’ll come to the in utero sounds, when our newly-formed ear was pressed against the wall of our mama’s womb, and the whooshing and swooshing of her heart was the first thing we heard, was the round-the-clock soundtrack of our very beginning.

i know that in nature there’s a particular universal set of shapes and designs and symmetries and proportions (consider the snowflake or the rose petal, the starfish or even the tiger’s striped face), and that the patterns repeat and repeat throughout creation. mathematicians and artists alike have spent their lives obsessed with these ineffable truths. they’ve put names to them, names like divine proportion or the miraculous spiral.

i like to imagine God dipping into God’s paint kit to pull from that oft-used palette, applying God’s favorites here, there, and everywhere. do you think it’s true too of the patterns of sound? clock ticking = water dripping = human heart, no matter how you rearrange it. do you think God had a shortlist of sounds, of ones reserved for the soothingest jobs?

affection for clocks is not new in this old house. in one of those curious entwinings of the histories we’ve woven together in this adventure called “our married life,” the tall bespectacled fellow and i both grew up with grandparents whose walls were covered in clocks, and whose hours erupted in cacophonous gongs and chimes and whistles and tweets (in the cases, of course, of the cuckoo clocks). sleeping at grandma’s, for both of us, meant falling asleep and awaking to clang upon clang upon cuckoo.

long ago, in our very first house, we hung on our wall a simple kitchen clock, one with gingerbread carvings and etchings in paint the color of gold. it had belonged to the tall one’s grandfather, and i’ve long considered it the heart sound of this old house. i didn’t need another one.

but the man i married started thinking about clocks a few years ago, when i was writing a book called “slowing time,” and he thought a clock was the perfect way to mark the birth of that dream. we’d considered a true grandfather clock, one that stood against the wall like a wood-limbed soldier. every once in a while we’d amble through a clock shop, one where the clocks came with history, and sometimes with pedigree.

then we traveled to london, and beelined our way to big ben, the best clock that ever there was, you might argue (and i might). we stood beneath that tower of chiming and gonging, feeling the sidewalk beneath us quiver with the vibration of the bells. we listened and listened, made sure we were there for high noon and midnight, to get the full bravura.

a year passed, and for me, another decade ended, a new one began. we went back to the clock shop, and this time, we both stopped in front of the clock that sounded just like big ben.

my beloved blair bought it, the clock man gave it a cleaning, and a few days later i drove back to carefully carefully carry it home.

it’s home now. it chimes now. we call it little ben. every time i hear its chimes, i melt all over again. i can’t seem to help it.

my sweet blair, a very wise soul in the deepest and surest of ways, he stood back the other evening, the glow of the lamps falling across his face, and whispered quietly, “it’s a celebration of time.”

and it is. every minute noted, every quarter hour chimed. every hour a loud and resonant reminder: the time is now, savor it.

bless you, and thank you, sweet blair. and little ben, too.

if you click the link just below the clock (way above), you can hear a bit of the ticking and half-hour chiming (i hope!). and be sure to note that i’ve linked to big ben announcing high noon in the paragraph near the bottom, the one about traveling to london. both are your clock songs for the day. 

a few things i learned about westminster chimes: they first rang out from the church of st. mary the great, in cambridge, england. the year was 1793. the chimes are comprised of four permutations of four pitches, all in the key of E major. three crotchets (or quarter notes) are followed by a minim (half note). and they’re believed to be a set of variations on the four notes that make up the fifth and sixth measures of “I know that my Redeemer liveth” from handel’s messiah. they were first heard in america in 1875, ringing out from the steeple of trinity episcopal church in williamsport, pennsylvania. and, the first two notes are the very ones heard to this day on every NYC subway train, warning that doors are about to close. the whole shebang is played at yankee stadium whenever the home team scores. and if there’s a 3-point shot that glides through the basket on the LA laker’s home court, you’ll hear it there too. 

do you, too, love the tick and the tock of a clock? do you have a clock story to tell? what are the sounds that most soothe you, or make you feel as if God is whispering in your ear?

blessing, stitch-by-stitch

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but one of the blessings i count…

the dome of heaven, thin veil between earth and sky, is only now daubed with morning’s light. when i tiptoed down the stairs, eager to begin my count of blessings, there was only deep dark shadow, no stars stitched the dawn, not that i could see, constellations occluded by cloud.

i began the day in the hour where i find my deepest prayer: the still-slumbering hours when i alone animate the house. when the creaks in the floorboards come from my soft-fleshed soles pressing against the slabs of oak, when lightbulbs burn — or not — because i flick the switch. when clocks tick unencumbered. when my morning ministrations — scooping seed for the birds, scooping beans for my coffee, cranking the furnace, fetching the papers from the curb — become a liturgy of gratitude, as i lift the curtain on the day, as i sweep my heart in prayer.

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cranberry and pear, under a raw-sugar cloud, before they simmer into relish

and never more so than the dawn that follows thanksgiving, when the refrigerator groans under the weight of turkey carcass, and every inch is strategically occupied with cranberry and cold mashed potato and autumnal roots roasted into surrender. and, because i was on my knees scrubbing last night, with a vat of vinegar and water by my side, the maple slabs by the stove no longer are slick with splattered butter and olive oil.

it’s become something of a tradition on this day when the world screams of one-day-only sales and count-down bargains, and the stories of mobs at the malls are enough to make me break out in hives, i retreat. i take to the woods. to the rustle of brittle grasses under my boots. to the chill against my cheeks. and when i come to a clearing, where a singular oak rises up from the prairie, i trace my gaze heavenward, beyond the bare naked limbs that scrape the late november sky.

the more the world rushes at me, the more certain i’m beating retreat.

but first i wrap myself in prayer, in the count-down of blessing, more emphatic than ever this year as i set out to steady myself in the aftermath of these weeks that have shaken me to my core, as the din all around seems fueled by a hate i can hardly fathom, as the discourse too often appears to have lost its soul.

i bow my head and begin.

before my feet hit the floor beside my bed, i am washed over in the knowing that this morning is especially blessed: all the beds in this old house are filled. the two boys i love, tucked under blankets, their dreams rising up from their pillows. i whisper infinite thanks for these two who, more than anyone, wrote the script of my sacred instruction, who taught me how to be alive, how to love, through their hours of question, and struggle, their shadow and light.

i pause in the closet to stretch a holey old sweater over my head. thank you, dear heavens, for old familiar clothes, the ones that make us feel deeply home, the ones that put on no airs, the ones not afraid to expose their thinnings and raggedy threads.

i find my way down the stairs, passing the wall of so many people i love, ancestral gallery, some in sepia tones, some black-and-white, all framed, all blessed and blessing. not a morning goes by that i don’t pass under their gaze, under their vigilant watch. thank you, all of you who came before, all of you who are wired into our DNA and our souls.

and then i round the bend to the kitchen, the high altar of this old house, really, where pots are stirred, and conversation bubbles up by the hour. where butcher-block counters hold up bottomless vats of talk, of questions and quandaries, as certainly as they bear the weight of my chopping and mincing. thank you, old stained maple block. and thank you, Most Sacred One, for the wisdom that sometimes comes to me, and the holy communion of shared silence in between.

i turn to brew coffee. my hand bumps into an old glass jar stuffed with thyme and oregano snipped from the window box just beyond the sill. thank you, dear God, for thinking to make leaves with a smell and a taste redolent of holiday, or our grandma’s kitchen, or some faraway place on the globe. thank you, too, for star anise and cinnamon stick simmering on the stove, my definition of heavenly vapors.

i tumble out the back door, my old banged-up coffee can spilling with shiny black sunflower seed. in the not-so-distance, i hear the ruffling of feathered wings, and soon as i dump my morning feast, the yard erupts in the darting and dashing of flocks hungry for their sustenance, hungry from the long night’s staving off the freeze. i’ve yet to run out of thanks — nor do i imagine i ever will — for the miracle of the sparrow and the scarlet-coated cardinal and the pair of blue jays who squawk like there’s no tomorrow.

i dash inside, shake off the cold, plop into my old red-checked armchair. i consider the wonder of a chair that wraps its wings around you, and sturdies your spine. thank you, Blessed One, for the hours i spend here, turning pages, inhaling the poetry that life can’t stanch.

and so it goes, our days a litany of blessing. i begin with the tiniest of stitches, a petit point of gratitude that stretches across the vast canvas of my every day.

the more i read, the more i listen, the more deeply i understand that the miracle we’re after, the wonder we seek, the beauty that tingles our spine, it doesn’t come with trumpets blaring, but rather in the accumulated whisper of one small blessing after another. the blessings at once unadorned and majestic. the blessings that make us whole, and fill us when we’re hollowed.

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my blessings, entwined

 

before i ask what blessings fill your day, and your soul, i want to leave a poem i stumbled across yesterday, one that seems to belong here at the table. it’s a meditation on the blessing of a kitchen table. 

Perhaps the World Ends Here
BY JOY HARJO

The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.

The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on.

We chase chickens or dogs away from it. Babies teethe at the corners. They scrape their knees under it.

It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human. We make men at it, we make women.

At this table we gossip, recall enemies and the ghosts of lovers.

Our dreams drink coffee with us as they put their arms around our children. They laugh with us at our poor falling-down selves and as we put ourselves back together once again at the table.

This table has been a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun.

Wars have begun and ended at this table. It is a place to hide in the shadow of terror. A place to celebrate the terrible victory.

We have given birth on this table, and have prepared our parents for burial here.

At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks.

Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.

“Perhaps the World Ends Here” from The Woman Who Fell From the Sky by Joy Harjo. Copyright © 1994 by Joy Harjo. 

and now, what are the simple unadorned blessings that stitch together your day — and your soul?

pausing for hello

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it’s as old-fashioned a gathering as any i know. the one where — instead of just waving while hauling out the trash, or yelping a how-d’-do as you dash three-bluestones-per-leap up the walk — you let out a holler, a hospitable one, up and down the block, and invite the whole flock to your kitchen, warm mugs palmed in your hands, stories brewing.

i’ve not hauled out my vat of a coffee percolator in a very long time.

but it’s time. we’re long overdue. that’s what we all said, as each and every reply trickled in.

on the block where i live, we used to find ourselves in each others’ kitchens, oh, at least every few months. there was summer theatre in the alley, where the kids, the whole lot of them, sang and danced and sewed, learned their lines, built their stage sets, even rigged up contraptions for flying. there were new year’s day parades, with the tykes all bundled and barely able to shuffle, what with the layers and layers that padded their limbs. there were the occasional no-real-reason gatherings, and the annual swedish extravaganza for santa lucia’s feast day (complete with candlelit caroling and bottomless kettles of svedish meatballs and lutefisk).

we all knew each other as deeply as neighbors might. we thought nothing of calling in the middle of the night if need be, and yes, there were nights when the needs wouldn’t wait for the dawn. all our kids grew up rubbing elbows and shoulders and wits. growing into each other’s hand-me-down pants, and more than one blazer that had barely ever been worn. more than one kid might have had a wee crush on another, learning love over the backyard fence.

but then, one by one, houses changed inhabitants. kids grew up, moved away. every once in a while a kid hit a rough patch, and we all prayed mightily. and then, without a word, we would give the mama room and time to untangle the knots, and drop off dinner once or twice with no need for a thanks.

and not too long ago, the house next door to mine, it welcomed new folks for the first time in 47 years. so, this time, i’m the one plugging in the industrial-sized caffeine machine. and cranking the oven. and slicing the pumpkin-cranberry loaf.

they’re all making their way to my kitchen. only for a short spell of time — a mere couple hours — on a friday morning, as the week draws to a close. but i want my new next-door neighbor to know the good souls who surround her. i want to make sure this circle of mostly old friends takes time to pause, to not only learn her name, but some of her story as well. i want her days to be stitched with the small wonder of a neighbor who drops a sack of just-picked tomatoes onto your doorknob. with the joy that comes when the lady down on her knees in the mud of her garden shouts out something so hysterically funny you find yourself chuckling for the next three hours — or days. want her to know who she can call in the middle of the night should, God forbid, she ever need to.

we’ve tumbled into each other’s lives through accident of geography. because we all found a particular house, a place where we’ve nestled our dreams and fluffed a few pillows besides, on the very same block in the very same village, in the very same era of time.

life does that: throws you together. makes you bump up against each other in the comings and goings of your humdrum day. and, soon enough, once you’ve caught the gleam in someone’s eye, once you’ve licked a spoon of the apple butter they leave at your backdoor, once they’ve cried with you over the death of your cat — or your very best friend, or your mama or papa — or shown up at the hospital just to see if you need anything, you find yourself falling in love. with this one patch of earth that seems to ooze old-fashioned kindness and goodness of heart. and the very good people who grow there.

i’m hoping that by the time my new neighbor strolls home, after a mug or two of high-octane coffee, after a spear of pineapple, and maybe a clementine, chased with a steamy mound of hot-from-the-oven cheesy strata, she’ll know a bit more deeply just how priceless was her real estate find.

so while i dash to the kitchen to chop the pineapple, pile high the clementines, and slice a few loaves of autumnal breads, i’ll leave you with a taste of what i’m pulling from the oven: the recipe for the spinach-cheese strata i’m serving all the mamas of maple avenue, the ones i’ve known for a very long time, and the ones who are new to the brood.

Spinach-Cheese Strata
from Gourmet magazine
Yield: Makes 6 to 8 servings
Active Time: 30 min
Total Time: 10 hr
Ingredients
• 1 (10-oz) package frozen spinach, thawed
• 1 1/2 cups finely chopped onion (1 large)
• 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
• 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
• 8 cups cubed (1 inch) French or Italian bread (1/2 lb)
• 6 oz coarsely grated Gruyère (2 cups)
• 2 oz finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (1 cup)
• 2 3/4 cups milk
• 9 large eggs
• 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
Preparation
Squeeze handfuls of spinach to remove as much liquid as possible, then finely chop.
Cook onion in butter in a large heavy skillet over moderate heat, stirring, until soft, 4 to 5 minutes. Add 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon pepper, and nutmeg and cook, stirring, 1 minute. Stir in spinach, then remove from heat.
Spread one third of bread cubes in a buttered 3-quart gratin dish or other shallow ceramic baking dish and top evenly with one third of spinach mixture. Sprinkle with one third of each cheese. Repeat layering twice (ending with cheeses).
Whisk together milk, eggs, mustard, and remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper in a large bowl and pour evenly over strata. Chill strata, covered with plastic wrap, at least 8 hours (for bread to absorb custard).
Preheat oven to 350°F. Let strata stand at room temperature 30 minutes.
Bake strata, uncovered, in middle of oven until puffed, golden brown, and cooked through, 45 to 55 minutes. Let stand 5 minutes before serving.
Cooks’ note:
• Strata can be chilled up to 1 day. Let stand at room temperature 30 minutes before baking.

have you paused to make a new friend lately? and, what’s your favorite welcome-to-the-‘hood recipe?

 

hummingbird wisdom, continued

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six months ago, my dear and longtime friend mary ellen sullivan died. she was a writer, a chronicler of joy, i called her when i sat down to write her obituary, trying to distill her essence into a few short sentences and paragraphs that swept across the arc of a life too short. a month or so after she died, i found out she’d written me into her will, appointed me the keeper of her “creative work.” it’s a mantle i accept with heavy heart. a week ago, on a hot august afternoon, i met her brother in her emptied-out apartment, and he handed me boxes and boxes and boxes, her creative work, in all its iterations. it was perhaps the heaviest load of papers i’ve ever tried to lift. i didn’t wait long to open the lid of one of the boxes, to lift pages, to begin to read, to inhale the story of a life i knew well, a story told this time in mary ellen’s own words. i all but felt her beside me, or sitting across the table. i knew the intonations, the emphases of every single sentence. i knew she’d tiptoe into my dreams. i knew she’d left wisdom that i was to unearth, to not let die along with her.

night after night, i pulled up to the kitchen table, not far from the screen door, where the breeze blew in, not far from the night sounds, the buzzsaw of cicada, the chirp of the crickets. i’d pile a stack of journals and notebooks and paper-clipped papers to my left, papers lifted from the boxes that waited in the dark of another room, the load of mary ellen’s boxes.

it was, i tell you, like sitting down with a dear friend, pulling in close enough to brush knees against knees. it was as if i’d said, “so tell me your story,” and thus she began, in whispers. i’d known these chapters in real time, and here i was, reading, hearing the whole of it in details sometimes so intimate i closed the book and tucked it aside. i promise you my tender heart is guiding me through what’s mine to shepherd to light, and what’s best tucked away.

i read page after page from the writing classes she’d take, from the book about africa she’d long hoped to write, to publish.

and then i picked up this: two stapled pages, curled and yellowed at the edges, typed in a font from computers of long ago, early HP perhaps. i read the first sentence, and started to tremble. i had a hard time reading through tears, but this is what i began to read…

“If I were to die in five minutes, I would miss sleeping, and the warm wood of my apartment floor. I would miss talking to Barbie on the phone on Saturday mornings with a cup of coffee in my hands. I would miss running errands in the neighborhood and going for long hard runs after work when the air is clean and cool and gives you the shivers when your sweat starts to dry. I would miss the ocean most of all. Any ocean, any beach. The feel of wet sand between my toes and the waves breaking over my body and the sand going from warm to cool in the early evening when the sun starts to set and everyone but me and my family leave the beach and we just sit there and talk and read and watch the sand turn purple and the water a deep blue and the sky orange and very beautiful. I will miss running in the water and splashing so much that you might as well go swimming so you do.

“I’ll miss kissing a man for the first time…..”

and then, i tell you, i could barely read, the tears were falling so hard, so fast. (they are now, truth be told….) so i waited, and breathed, and wiped away the tears, and i looked back at the page, the page trembling in my hands by then, and i read the litany of things my friend would miss, if she were to die in five minutes, five minutes from the moment she wrote all those words. in fact, she died on march 13, 2016, far sooner than she’d ever imagined. she never thought the ovarian cancer would kill her. she fully intended to vanquish the cancer. to become someone who had had cancer.

but my friend who died, who wrote this litany in a writing class, an exercise titled, “death is the name,” who wrote this thinking death was the last thing that would ever happen to her (yes, i see the unintended word play, and i’m ignoring it), whose words i now inhaled half a year after she had died, she wrote that she’d miss her down comforter, and staying up late by herself and “the freedom the night gives.” she wrote that she’d miss the first taste of an expensive dinner, and the last gritty drop of a bottle of red wine. she wrote that she’d miss hot baths and getting lost in paperbacks.

her sentences grew more and more beautiful, the deeper she sank into the exercise, wrapping herself in the velvet cloak of worldly magnificence.

i was struck, hard and deep, by the simplicity of the litany. the depth and dimension of each pulsing joy, now taken away.

she made me think hard about how our lives are stitched of thin but mighty threads, glimmering delicate threads, threads we’d be wise to notice, to run our fingers across, again and again, for they’re what’s woven into the beautiful whole.

our lives, she made me realize once again, are a textured tapestry of heartache and joy, of blessing and softness and shadow and light, of everyday wonders that awake us to the moment, so the moments slow to a pause, so we behold each blessed minute of our awareness, our awakeness, so each hour is relished for the gift that it is. so not an hour goes by unnoticed.

“if i were to die in five minutes,” she wrote. and i read those words six months after she did. and thus, each word came to me as if shouted through a megaphone: be awake. pay attention. savor the blessed, the beautiful.

the warmth of the mug you hold in your palms? notice it. bless it. you’ll so miss it when it’s gone, when you’re gone.

a question and a challenge: what would you miss, what blessing upon blessing across the quotidian arc of your day? make a list, compile your litany. and then, pay closest attention today. and tomorrow. and the day after. my friend mary ellen would love you for that.

i titled this “hummingbird wisdom, continued,” because my friend mary ellen was all about the hummingbird. she wrote a blog called, on the wings of the hummingbird. and she once wrote these words explaining her captivation with the hover-winged bird:

“My favorite description of the hummingbird magic comes from Ted Andrews, who wrote the seminal book on animal totems called ‘Animal Speak.’ He says, ‘There is something inside the soul of all of us that wants to soar through sunbeams, then dance midair in a delicate mist, then take a simple bath on a leaf. There is something in our souls that wants to hover at beautiful moments in our lives, making them freeze in time. There is something in us that wants to fly backwards and savor once more the beautiful past. Some of us are just hummingbird people.’

“Guilty as charged.” — Mary Ellen Sullivan, May 30, 2012

rail riders

swamp king

“swamp king surveys his realm”

it was one of those ideas that tumbled into place. the two of them — one intrepid, the other more than willing to follow — would set out on uncharted adventure. road trip, in the first iteration. brotherly road trip. but then, suddenly, as was the case long ago in one boy’s history, the rails beckoned. the city of new orleans, in particular beckoned. that’s the name of the rail line, the legendary rail line, as well as the crescent city itself.

a line made famous when steve goodman penned the song, and arlo guthrie, and willie nelson, and john denver covered it. a song that burrows into your brain waves and takes a few days to shake itself out. goodman wrote that “i’ll be gone five hundred miles when the day is done.” but really it’s 924, give or take a twist in the tracks, from chicago to nawlins, meandering along the mighty mississippi.

and so, with a few clicks of the computer, tickets were had, bags were stashed with the few things a boy needs, and the days between soccer weekends were suddenly filled with visions of beignet and po’ boy and, because their grammy insisted, praline. old dear friends who know new orleans like the back of their hand, they dispatched guides to the back alleys and tucked-away treasures. and how perfect that a friend we love just happens to be restaurant critic/food writer for the new orleans times-picayune and, occasionally, the new york times, where his prose lures millions, i’m certain, to the eateries of his adopted metropolis.

we set out to union station monday night, where, according to the amtrak website, the dining car, the famed dining car that boasted of jambalaya and red beans and rice, it would welcome sleeping-car riders a full hour before departure. they’d be clinking forks and knives against china plates, sipping from crystal goblets, as soon as the sleek engine lurched out of the station, through the shadows of a city being drained of its daylight. or so they had every reason to think.

until we got to the counter where they check the tickets. and the lady barked, “oh no. not anymore. that website needs update. all they have now is express meals.”she went on to say the meals were “awful,” went on to explain that she was talking about pre-made sandwiches zapped in a microwave. she advised a trip to the train-station food court before boarding. and i saw the glimmer drain out of two pairs of eyes. i saw a jaw drop, i swear. but that lasted only an instant. they were set for adventure, and a boxed set of bread and cold meat couldn’t derail this duo.

we dashed up the escalator to scoop up the last helping of chicken fried rice, as the vendor closed shop for the night, then we grabbed two stale bagels for the price of one, an end-of-day deal at the bake shop. then, kisses all around, and hopes for the best.

the brothers were off.

the mother and father, not used to this absence of children, motored away. worried, if truth be told (and it always is around here). one or two of the boys was showing sign of distress. one with brewing case of heat stroke, a case that only started to surface the nearer we got to the station.

and, as is often the case in these parts, the narrative plot grows thick with unanticipated turns. so much for unadulterated joy ride.

it started out semi-comically enough when the door to their sliver-sized sleeper car decided to lock behind them as they set off for the dome car. took a train engineer, a dining car waitress named joy-ann, a porter, and a crow bar to get the door unlocked — more than half an hour later — amid a chorus of “never saw this before, not in 35 years working the train. door’s not supposed to do that.”

then, as night fell across the central illinois farmland, the heat stroke of the little one — the one who’d been up for soccer at 5 o’clock that morning, and had played two games on a field that shimmered with 100-degree heat — it got worse and worse, and he got sicker and sicker.

and if you think it’s hard to tend to the sick when they’re splayed out on the couch right before your eyes, you can double the duress when they’re on a train headed south, and you’re stuck home, farther and farther away by the minute. yes, there was a midnight phone call. or two. and yes, there were more in the morning. took the whole of a day before the kid could guzzle enough to slow his breathing, quell his tummy, and stop seeing stars.

and all along a brotherly miracle was underway. each one worried about the other, so much so that every time i talked or texted, the only thing they wanted to talk about was their concern for the other guy. and then, not long after hitting rock bottom, things turned around. i don’t yet know all the details, because as i type they’re rolling home through illinois farm fields, having left behind memphis, and mississippi’s delta, and the swamps and bayou of louisiana.

all i know is that they packed in as much as humanly possible in the 24 hours both were upright and breathing. i know there were po’ boys of various renditions, and something called “snoballs” that turned one of their tongues deep midnight blue for the whole of a day and a night, “no matter how many times i brushed my tongue, mom.” i know there were fried oysters, and an old man on a trolley who filled them with stories and a wallop of wisdom. i know they felt something “sacred” at preservation hall, where the jazz wailed deep into the night. and i know they warmed mightily to the slow southern pace. and the charms of the characters they gathered, like souvenirs, all along the way.

and more than anything, i know they got each other through one of those very tight tunnels, the kind where you can’t see the light at the end. and all you can do is hope and pray and wheedle each other forward.

we set them off on the rails in the hopes that they’d seal their holy blessed year with a cajun-steeped hallelujah, of the summery sort. we hadn’t thought one would be nurse to the other. weren’t anywhere near to witness where and how they discovered the magic. all that matters, though, is they figured it out. they fended for each other. one led, and one followed. and then the tables were turned. as is the way on any zydeco dance floor. as is the way in any life well loved.

welcome home, sweet boys. i missed you.

i love that photo above, “swamp king surveys his realm,” snapped by the older one — photo by will kamin, the credit would read — as they rode the rails home. the one in the photo, aka “swamp king,” was feeling infinitely better by then, the magic of nawlins indeed.

have you taken a trip that turned into far more of an adventure than you’d plotted? and what are the life lessons you carried home?

he gave us a year: this mama will never forget

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“can we have a day?”

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hand-in-hand with my firstborn

 

willie and bam making willie brussels sprouts ala christmas 2014

side-by-side with my firstborn, all grown.

if i sound insistent, urgent, imperative today, it’s because i am. 

it couldn’t have come at a more ordinary moment. we’d been motoring about the utilitarian landscape, the backroads of suburbia, past big old houses, and strip malls, threading our way through the tangle of morning rush hour. the other car was in the shop, so i was the designated deliverer. i’d dropped one child at the schoolhouse door, the other was about to dive into a day at the courthouse, where he works twice a week, defending the otherwise undefended. i’d just mentioned that i really didn’t mind driving all over creation. didn’t mind the banal scenes out the window. didn’t mind the cold coffee tucked in the holder beside me.

we’d been laughing since the older one leapt into the car — minutes later than we needed to leave, socks not yet on his feet, his coffee cup sloshing. we’d thought we’d be late, as in the little one marked “tardy.” and for a minute there, we were cranky. or at least i was. but then the sockless one got going, got us laughing. the little one practically spit out his oatmeal, he was laughing so hard.

and so it had been for 25 minutes or so. pure straight driving and laughing, and trying not to spit out mouthfuls of oatmeal.

all i’d said was i didn’t mind driving one bit. didn’t mind clocking a good ten miles in a sliver of time when i could have been curled up with coffee and the morning’s news.

and that’s when my firstborn chimed in: “could we have a day when the two of us just bop around all day? a whole day? we just get in the car and go where we go?”

the sentence shot through the air sealed in that car. shot straight from his mouth to my soul.

the request couldn’t have been simpler, purer.

mom, could we clear a long stretch of hours, just one day’s stretch, and could you and me burrow into that sacred cocoon of time, could we savor the hours together? could we stitch together a plain old ordinary day of doing the things we love — just the two of us, in slow time?

right away, i heard and i felt the whole of that question. the layers and layers. a longing i too had long known — to spend an unbroken stretch of time with someone you dearly and deeply love, hearts sealed not by virtue of itinerary but simply by the gift of no one or nothing else getting in the way. because all you want is to be entwined, to travel across the hours, together. because all that matters, really, is proximity of the most soulful kind. is time, shared.

by the end of the day, the question couldn’t have been more profound.

by the end of the day — not more than a few hours later, really — i’d gotten word that a very dear friend had taken a terrible turn. her cancer was running amok. doctors had told her — with a rapidity that left us all breathless — that there was nothing left to do. they’d stop the chemo, they’d send her home.

or they had hoped to, anyway. now, it hardly looks likely.

and that was yesterday. this morning i am getting back in my old station wagon, and i am driving downtown. to a hospital. i am going to say goodbye to the woman who has long been the bravest traveler i know. she crossed the globe all on her own, in a trek that stitched her shattered heart stronger than ever, in a trek that taught her thousands of lessons i’ll never know. my friend is blond, naturally so, and as she glided through the dirt-packed roads of africa, then india, and china, and bali, she cut the most exotic figure. she laughed, the deepest soulful laugh, whenever she talked about how the children had flocked to her, stroked her hair, this otherworldly creature who’d dropped into their midst. she loved being surrounded by children, my friend who never birthed her own. my friend who stood beside me at my wedding. my friend who drove me to the hospital the night my bleeding would not stop. my friend who over the years learned the ways of indigenous wise women, and who once, on the eve of my own awful surgery, wafted me head to toe, heart to womb, with the smoke and the incense of the bundle of sage she pulled from her satchel, her medicine bag.

this is the second time in six months, i am saying goodbye to a blessed and beloved friend.

i know how both would answer the question: “can we just have a day?”

the answer, the imperative, is this: seize the day. seize it now. make each hour holy. do not allow the hour to fritter away, charred bits of time, lost to petty and insignificant slights.

can we just have a day?

can we just have a day to seal our hearts, to savor the joy, the truth, before it’s tugged away from us? can we revel in each other’s laughter? can we find the delight as we look out at the world passing by? can we taste deliciousness, taste the whole of it? can we dive deep into the well of each other’s company, each other’s undying love?

i can hear my friends now, both reaching up from their hours of shallow and shallower breathing, i can see the look in their eyes, the insistence, the impatience: seize the day, seize the hour or minute. seize the time that is yours. and be guided only by love. pure and simple.

please, take this day. and make it holy, pure and simple.

please whisper prayers for safe-keeping for my beautiful friend. please please, hold her in all the light you can muster……

that moment when…(and this summer more than ever…)

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all week i’ve been feeling it. that moment that best can be likened to the glorious fraction of time when you’ve been out in tippity teetering heels all night, when your toes have been practically yelping in protest and the bones in your feets have been threatening to cut you off at the ankles, when every ounce of you wanted to wriggle out of this unnatural state of constraint, but you had to make like a grownup and prance around in footwear that does its best to topple you, and sometimes makes you chew on your cheek besides. but then, finally, the night and the torture come to an end, and there in the dark, and practically running, you round the bend, you lurch toward the door and you begin the release for which you’ve been throbbing: you scrape the toe of one pointy shoe against the penned-in heel of the other, and you kick the darn foot-clamps clear across the kitchen.

you stand there, for a minute or two, just drinking in the feel of your bones falling back to their pre-ordained order. you listen to the flow of the blood trickling back to the tips of your squeezed-colorless tootsies.

you savor the long-awaited rush of relief. the busting-out-of-whatever-bound-you.

which, pretty much, is how it feels around here. more so than in a very long time. because summer in this old house has arrived with a groundswell of holy hallelujah. boy one is finished with college. boy one is hanging around. boy two just finished with grade school. ergo, this is a summer that comes with a full ladle of finish. and, perhaps, an extra-deep dollop of purest enchantment.

this is, more than any summer that i can recall, one of those moments when the hours make like salvador dali had at them. they warp into stretched-out proportions. they expand, not contract. they breathe. and sometimes, like sunday afternoon when my firstborn and i plopped into old wicker chairs and stayed there for the better part of three hours, they stand perfectly utterly still.

i am, in this seasonal opening act, indulging in time. i am whirling, deep down inside, in the rarest of joy, the feeling that somehow i’ve cupped my hands, sunk them deep in a font of holiest waters, and come up spilling; splattering drop after delectable drop.

i’m not worrying, for heaven’s sake, about what’s for dinner, i’m not looking at clocks. (though i am watching ice boxes magically empty, and i am setting world records for laundry.) i’m feeling the lumpety-thump of my heart when the sound of the footsteps comes down the stairs at times when i’m usually alone and the house is usually silent. like a kid on christmas morning, i’m peeking through cracks in the door at two sleeping boys with no need for hurry.

maybe i love it all the more because i know it won’t last. and not only because i’ve been around the block enough times to know that, soon enough, the days will be so hot and so sticky we’ll all be wishing for igloos. and popsicles will seem a sensible breakfast.

maybe it’s all the sweeter because i never imagined we’d all have one more summer together. i hadn’t pictured four cereal bowls plopped on the table, each one blanketed in warm-from-the-field farmer berries. i hadn’t imagined the windows rolled down in the old station wagon, and me and my boys blaring the radio, wending our way to no particular anywhere. i hadn’t considered boy upon boy curled up on the couch, arms and shoulders entwined, words of brotherly wisdom being imparted in whispers.

for now, it’s one fleeting drink-it-all-in suspension of time.

we’re back to the place, and the moment, when the letting loose rubs you all over. like a terry cloth towel before it’s worn thin. it’s that magical interlude when the season is new, when we’re just on the cusp, and everything is raw and deep and our pores are wide open and we’re guzzling it down. right in here, in this opening act of summer’s production, the season of so few cares, we’re hard at work simply savoring.

and this particular summer it comes with a brand of relish that i’ll never ever forget.

this just might be the summer whose frames i’ll play and replay till the last gasp i breathe on this earth.

well, goodness gracious, i got a wee bit sidetracked — make that a lot sidetracked — here this morning when my ferocious jungle cat (he who seems to be showing off in recent days, proving to any and all that he might be old but he ain’t over yet) carried into the house — into the very middle of the family room’s old persian rug, mind you — a still-wriggling, but-not-for-long critter, clutched in the sharp-toothed grip of said hunter cat. i let out a yelp, as is my usual inclination, and hip-hopped in circles till i got the duo to skitter back through the rip of the old screen door. it set me to quaking for a few minutes there, and then i needed to settle back in to the rhythms above. and, oh goodness, the wonders of summer took on whole new dimensions. 

and in further keeping with this slow-time summer, i’ve just spent the last hour plopped on the post-college kid’s new navajo rug, chatting about his early morning adventures procuring yet another job. normally i fidget till i hit the friday-morning-publish button, but not today. today i know that all’s in due time. and if it unfolds slowly, it’s all the more glorious….

finally, before i go, a most blessed birthday i wish for my beloved friend cecilia and her forever love, gary, who serendipitously and marvelously share the same birthday. this is a big one for ceci, a day of more than usual import. i send love and prayers in double dose.

so before i sign off: what do you savor most at the start of this laid-back season……

welcome to summer

footsteps straight to my heart

willie diploma wall

four years ago, it was the sound of his footsteps i knew i would miss more than nearly anything.

the thud of his footfall onto the floor of the room up above, the footfall that signaled to me, down below, that the boy i love had clomped out of bed, or trundled down the stairs, that he soon would be rounding the bend, showing his face, his radiant face, at the old kitchen door.

his footsteps are back.

and my heart couldn’t be more tickled, delighted, dancing its own little jig.

the thud of the footfall is one of those percussive refrains woven into the rhythms of this old house, of any old house, and it’s a sound you might take for granted — it belongs with the particular click of the doorknob, or the way the car door slams off in the distance, and your heart knows before you know that someone you love is now home. you might take it for granted until suddenly, without forethought, it’s silenced, it’s absent. until all you hear is the hollow emptiness of no more footsteps — or door clicks, or car door slamming in the not-so-far distance.

it’s a quiet that crushes you. the unspoken sonic abyss of the someone who’s gone.

and now, with the thuds and the clomps and the rushing of water from the tap in his bathroom once again punctuating the soundtrack of this old house, i find my old heart quickening, picking up its rhythm, pounding just a wee bit harder, as once again — in that way that happens to mothers — i wrap my whole self — body and mind and heart and soul — around this interlude of pure wonder and blessing.

indeed, it’s way more chaotic around here than just one week ago, when this old house contained only three peoples plus a crotchety cat. and the lumbering fellow we’ve added to the equation, once he and his papa pulled down the alley, unloaded the mountains of boxes and lamps and speakers and papers, he’s set this old house percolating once again with his particular cacophonies. yes, there was a hammer pounding a wee bit late into the night. and the avalanche of stuff hauled out of his room and into the upstairs hall, it could tangle you into a knot, and snuff out your breath if you happened to trip and tumble deep down in its clutches.

but a bit of a miracle’s unfolding. i’d call it the answer to a prayer, except that i never dared to pray for it.

the boy i love, the boy who graduated in a cloud of glories at his college on the hill, he moved back to chicago thinking he’d rent a studio apartment, try to pay rent while teaching in an inner-city classroom, before he heads back off to law school and PhD school, before he spends a life trying to right wrongs and carving out justice. but then, as he pulled his duffle bags and moving boxes back into his boyhood room, as he perused the websites of apartment listings, as he realized the rent for a space not much bigger than his room at the bend in the stairs might be tough to afford, he started to rearrange his thinking — and his old room that bore the totems of middle and high school and selves long past.

he pulled posters off DSCF1241the wall, peeled campaign stickers off his closet door. took down the little boy bulletin board i’d bought the day we moved into this old house. he cleared his book shelves of boyhood favorites, took down the hobbit and twain and j.k. rowling; slid in hobbes and kant and aristotle. hung his hard-won college diploma just above his old desk, the desk where he calculated his way through fifth-grade math, and where he typed his junior theme. he must have measured the proximity between the door of his old room and that of his little brother, the one he says he came home to be close to.

he’s decided to stay.

he’s perched his french press coffee pot next to my gurgling electric one. he’s added his paltry few spices onto the shelf next to mine. he’s plugged in his speakers, and asked if we could pull up the old navy carpet so he can stride on the birds-eye maple that’s too long been shrouded. he’s decided, for now, that home will be in the place with a room all his own, and a sprawling kitchen just down the stairs (the commercial-grade six-burner cookstove and his mother’s built-in grocery service might have helped tip the scales in the refueling department).

for now, he’s sticking nearby.

for now, he and i are sitting down to breakfast, lunch and dinner. we’re taking long walks. we’re holding our breath — together  — as he puts muscle to hammer and tries to sink nails into plaster. we’re sitting out in the summer porch, listening to night sounds. we’re backfilling all of the stories that hadn’t had time to be told.

sure, my days are topsy-turvy. and this house feels certain to burst. and the washing machine moans from over-exertion.

but for four long years i could only wish for such chaos. i didn’t dare to hope that the day would come that we’d once again breathe the same air, inhale the same sounds, delight in shared and unscripted hilarities, ones unfolding in real time, and in the same time zone.

i’m practically giddy at the truth that this kid is wise enough, and tender enough of heart, to buck the prevailing post-graduation currents, to simply and humbly move back home, for the sheer gift of deepening the bonds with his little brother, and his grandmother who is now 84, and who every tuesday of his growing up years devoted her days and attentions to him. he is seizing the days before they are gone.

he didn’t take a job in DC, didn’t post himself in the heart of manhattan. all that might come. but for now, he’s taking a pause, taking time for what matters.

back in december he told me that he was looking to do the most meaningful work in the years between college and law school, “and, honestly, mommo,” he said, via long distance, “i can’t think of anything more meaningful than being there for tedd,” his little kid brother, now on the cusp of going off to high school.

as poignant as anything this week, and pulsing too very near the surface, is my knowledge — keen knowledge — that not too many miles away i have a very dear and deeply beloved friend who is in a hospital, suffering unimaginable devastations, and she might be robbed of the chance to whirl in this very dear thing, in her children’s sweet presence, in days that tumble lazily one to the next. please God, i beg, down on my knees, let my beautiful friend and her most blessed children share in this, the holiest dance.

for me — a girl who preaches deep-breathing the blessing of each and every framed moment of time — the unanticipated gift, the knowledge that we might grab a few years we’d not known were coming our way, this feels to me like the gift of a lifetime, this sweet holy homecoming.

and it comes with its very own soundtrack: the sound of a particular footfall, sinking deep and deeper into my heart.

bless you, sweet will, and welcome back home.

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worry not about the tomes slid off the boyhood book shelf, they are safe and sound with me, and will soon find a home on yet another shelf, one of the many that line the walls of this old house. a prayer request: for my beautiful friend in the hospital, for gentle soft hours to come her way.

and a question: what are the sounds of your heart’s dearest soundtrack, the ones that tell you someone you love is heading toward home? or the ones that make your heart tick as mighty as ever could be?

magic day at magic hedge

magic hedge

we cleared the day, i and the friend i love. i and the friend who these days is measuring her life bar by bar. each interlude of each day, each interlude when she can muster the strength to be up and not down. each interlude when the ravages of beating back cancer don’t hold her in their impossible grip.

my friend is one of the ones, blessed ones, who has slipped behind the screen, the opaque screen that so often keeps all of us from seeing the sacred, breathing the sacred, filling our lungs with all that is holy.

she sees everything now.

she’d written me an email that felt almost like haiku, so spare, so distilled to the essence.

she wrote: “blessings, blessings, more blessings. every minute is bonus. sun. birds. now.”

i listened. with those few words as my prompt, i cleared the day of whatever was due, was demanding, because i knew there was no time to waste; there never is. because i read her message, and the three letters — n – o – w — that deserved their own sentence, i stopped trying to find a way to wedge in a visit between appointments and meetings. i beheld the miracle of an ordinary wednesday. i carved out the most precious gift in the world: time. a few quiet hours stitched into the weave of a week.

because of the words she wrote in her haiku, her insistent plea to be awake to the now, because she mentioned birds and sun, i started to scan for a place that was beautiful, one that offered a strong dose of sunlight and shadow, birdsong and silence. the yin and the yang of the springtime, of life — its dualities so deeply essential.

i thought right away of the magic hedge.

we didn’t know when we met there, in the lull of the carved-out hours, just how magic it might be.

the magic hedge, you should know, is a wisp of meadow and brush and groves of old gnarled trees. its paths rise and bend, so do its grasses, the trunks of its trees. it elbows into the lake, lake michigan, as if an offering, an outpost, to the rivers of birds who, come warm springtime winds, catch the updraft, fly thousands of miles, from way south in central america or mexico or the southern united states, to way up north, to the boreal forests of canada, or, just shy of the border, nestled in woods along the great lakes.

the river of birds — songbirds, nearly all of them — flows along the lake’s edge; the tracing between water and shore an avian navigational guide as ancient as any there ever was. one of the great north american flyways, it’s called, and the magic hedge is something of a bed and breakfast for the long-distance flocks. exhausted, their little throats parched, their wings so tired from flapping, from floating on air, they settle into the trees, into the brush. they partake of the vernal banquet that is the hedge in bloom.

one of the miracles of the magic hedge is that it wasn’t always there. God didn’t put it there. it’s landfill. the leftover earth — the dirt, the rubble — from building a city, from raising a metropolis at the edge of the prairie, and all of it dumped into the lake at montrose point in the 1920s and ’30s. blessedly, chicago is a city that makes no small plans. it was alfred caldwell, a noted prairie-style landscape architect, who plotted the hedge’s undulations and meadows, numbered the trees and the shrubs on his planting list. it’s a mere 6.8 miles from the crosshairs of chicago’s cacophonous epicenter at state and madison, the zero-markers of the straight-lined grid that measures the city, border to border.

magic hedge blossom

yet, to step into the hedge, not half a mile from the rushing roar of lake shore drive — a flow of exhaust-spewing cars and burping, back-firing motorcycles — not a mile from the urban drama and squalors of uptown, a chicago neighborhood that’s long teetered on margins of every kind, to step into the hedge is to be swept, to be wrapped in the birdsong, the branches in bloom, the tender insistent unfurling of the season, whatever the season.

to step into the hedge is to surrender to the sacred.

we hadn’t guessed how sacred it might be.

it didn’t take long to figure that out.

right away i noticed a flock of the two-legged kind, the human kind. most of the flock were sporting long-nozzled lenses, pressed up to their eyes, pointed toward treetops. i tapped one such fellow gently on the shoulder and asked what the flurry was about.

“came here on a text that there was a hooded warbler, but it hasn’t been seen in 20 minutes,” he kindly told me, not bothered at all that i’d asked.

now, a hooded warbler, you should also know, is a wee little thing, one not often seen, apparently. it flies in saffron-colored robes, and for once i’d say the female is even more luminous than the male (but that’s getting ahead of the story). the hooded warbler is enough of a rarity, enough of a gem upholstered in feathers, that busy birders hard at work at their day jobs, drop everything when a text comes in that one, just one, is flitting through the magic hedge.

i felt a quiver of thrill as i leaned against a fence post, awaiting my friend. and that’s when a scarlet flash appeared before my eyes. right there in a branch i could reach out and touch. mind you, papa cardinals in my backyard do not allow visitors. this one, a proud papa, practically begged me to pat down his feathers.

that’s when i first felt the tap on my very own shoulder: magic was settling in for a visit.

not many minutes later, my beautiful friend arrived. a cap pulled tight over her head. wide-lensed glasses shielding her eyes. the cures for cancer are taking their toll.

we stepped into the birdsong, i and the friend i so love. the woods were achatter, aswoop, as spread wings crisscrossed the sky, as Ws made Xs over our heads. we followed a trail. we talked about those things that matter when you are staring down cancer. we talked of surrender, and healing and prayer in multiple tongues. and that’s when yet another cardinal decided to not be afraid. he hopped onto the grasses that spread between the forks in the trail right before us. he hopped closer and closer. this was a hedge alive with very brave birds, alive with a rare sort of courage.

magichedgecardinal

we did what you do when a cardinal befriends you: we crouched down low. we stayed very still. we barely moved a blade of grass. we whispered his name. he hopped closer and closer. and then his life’s mate, not quite so resplendent in her haus-frau feathers of drab brown and washed-out red, she plopped onto a fence post. she must have beckoned him. he darted away, leaving us slack-jawed at just how close he’d dared to come.

we wound this way and that. we paused at a grove of mayapple, one of the woodland’s underthings caught in the act of spreading its umbrella of wide-berth leaves. we marveled at the ruffled furls of the papery bark on a birch tree. and then we came to the flat slabs of rock, the ones that soak up the sun like a hard-shelled tortoise, the ones just inches away from the lap of the lake.

that’s when a kite-flying fellow appeared out of nowhere. one minute no one was there; the next, there came a man spinning his arms around an invisible spool. we couldn’t see at first what he was doing; it looked like some form of tai-chi, the way he swooped his hands and his wrists through the air at the edge of the lake. but then he called to us: “i made that,” he said, nodding toward high in the sky. we peered into the clouds and the sunbeams and that’s when we spied the red dot.

by then, the man with the kite on the string, he’d wandered close to our rock. without prompting he told us: “i wake up every morning, thank God for another day. you never know. i thank God every night, thank God for another day. you only got one life.”

and then, not long after that, he was gone. poof. vanished. lost in some haze. he’d wafted in long enough to tell the two of us to savor the moment, the minute, the hour. each and every interlude.

which was precisely what we’d been doing, were doing, will do. we promise.

once he was gone, had slipped away into the thin air from which he had come, my friend with the cap pulled over her head, she slipped down her dark-lensed glasses, and, looking straight at me, she said: “i think that was an angel.”

we both did.

we stayed on the rocks. we talked about life. we talked of the hard parts. we talked of the parts we so love. we whispered barely a word about cancer; there wasn’t much need to. we sipped mineral waters, ate clementines, dabbled spoons in two tubs of yogurt.

and then we got up, to meander some more. and there was more magic. the details of which i needn’t spell out (for this is getting to be too long a tale, though some tales are worth it). as we got to the edge of the hedge, though, as we got ready to step back into the day, into the bustle, we spied the last two insistent watchers of birds. they were poised in that way that birders are likely to be: lenses to eyes, pointed to limbs and to sky.

and that’s when we saw it, saw them, without any lenses, without any help (of the man-made kind, anyway): the rare and elusive hooded warbler, a pair of them to be precise. first mama, then papa. we watched, from our post alongside a log, as they darted and played in the trees. the afternoon light shone on the saffron-hued robes of mama warbler. she perched at the end of one very high branch, just sat there, practically glowing, making certain we inhaled the whole of her glory.

and we did.

the friend i so love leaned her head on my shoulder. and we stood in the hedge beholding the magic. beholding the love.

rare hooded warbler. with ceci. on magic day at magic hedge....

and that’s the answer to the prayer that comes when you carve out a holy hour or two or three, when you surrender to magic there at the watery edge. can you see mama hooded warbler, all plump-bellied and saffron there on the edge of the bough?

have you carved out holy time lately? and what magic wafted your way, alighted right before your deeply believing eyes?