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Category: savoring moments

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?

life: the one-time offer

images

wise souls have been preaching it, teaching it, imploring, beseeching, practically gluing the words onto billboards tucked by the sides of the busiest highways: “this is your one short life. don’t waste it.”

the original disappearing act; with every day lived your sum is shortened. a beginning with built-in end.

we bow our head, nod along, swear out loud we’ve gotten the message: we’re paying attention.

and then, in the hum and the thrum of empty refrigerator shelves, and school buses that rolled to the corner before you had your shoes tied, in the numbing blurring cacophony of laundry piles, and deadlines, and forms that must be signed and scanned and sent back whence they came, we watch all our promises flitter away, like so many dried paper flakes, antiqued and yellowed and lost over time.

but then, we wake up one monday morning, and we find these words from a friend:

“I have learned one thing that I want to emphasize more strongly than I typically do: Your whole life can change in a moment. One phone call out of the blue, one consult from the doctor, one misjudged stoplight, one thoughtless word, one head turned in the wrong direction and boom. Life as you knew it will never be the same. I know this and I am living it right now.

“So this is my advice:

“If you are sleepwalking through your life wake up, before the universe does it for you.

“If you are unhappy, figure out why, and put together a plan to change the circumstances causing it.”*

she goes on. brilliantly. and her words shook me to my core. sobered me. so sobered me.

because they slipped right into the crack in my heart that had been wedged wide open. opened because just the day before i’d been sitting at the foot of the couch on which a dear and deeply beloved friend was draped, under blankets, her head propped on pillows. her eyes as animated as they’ve ever been. even though she was recovering from brain surgery. even though she’d gotten news just the week before, news of the sort that does one of two things: crumples you into a ball, or rocket-blasts you into the clearest-eyed vision you’ve ever seen.

my friend went with the latter. she said, as we sat at her feet, that the whole reel of her life had been passing before her eyes, and she’d spent the weekend telling her beautiful children the few things she wanted them always to know. “i was making pronouncements,” she said, making it sound like she was some sort of moses on the mountaintop, bellowing into the lungs, and the hearts, of her kids the few short prescriptions she held for living a deep and meaningful life.

the sorts of words you might whisper as you watch your little girl, suddenly grown and deeply beautiful, slide into her bridal gown. the sorts of things you’d want to say as you cradled your just-born grand baby for the very first time. the very words that would spill from your lips as you watched your firstborn, or your last-born, walk across a stage at graduation. or, perhaps, the sorts of things you might say when you’re simply chopping carrots, side by side on an ordinary tuesday. or as you sit under a star-stitched sky, wondering, wishing, weaving the night with whatever it is that rises up from your heart.

my friend didn’t know anymore if she’d be there, for moments so big or so small. she didn’t know if  she’d make it to those times when you squeeze the hand of someone you love, and proclaim the scant few words that say everything, when each little word is the vessel for volumes: i love you. i am so proud of this flight that you’ve taken, the way you’ve spread your wings, seized the moment, believed in the possible, fought for what’s right and what’s good. i’m so blessed by the whole of who you are. stay steady. go with God. do not surrender.

and then, after that sunday at the foot of my friend’s couch, where she covered the still-raw scar at the back of her head in her brown-hooded sweatshirt, came monday, and the words up above from my friend:

“If you are sleepwalking through your life wake up, before the universe does it for you.”

and then tuesday, late tuesday, came word of another friend. another friend who’d been wheeled into another surgery. the news from that surgery was the sort that wakes up the sleepwalkers. the sort that rattles you, and leaves you gasping for breath. the sort you never expected to hear, or to read as it trickled in in an email, one of those emails sent to a small circle of friends. and you sit there staring at your computer, reading the words over and over. because tears are clouding your eyes.

and so all week, all i could think about was how the universe is hellbent on waking us up. and we’d do best to pay attention. long-lasting attention.

because friends whom you’ve known forever and ever it seems — friends whose newborn babies you’ve cradled, friends whose weddings you’ve danced at, friends whom you’ve held as they buried their mother or their lover, as they’ve struggled to glue back together their own broken hearts, friends you only ever thought of as invincible and unbreakable — those friends are facing the climb of a lifetime. climbs that involve hope upon hope. and unending faith.

and you can’t help but wonder why the universe thinks you need to hear it in double-time. and why, maybe, please, they couldn’t both be spared all the suffering.

and then, because life is ever mysterious and always breath-taking, you stumble across lines in a book you just happen to be reading for work. lines like these:

“teach us to number our days,” cried the psalmist. “that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”

or, saint augustine: “it is only in the face of death that man’s self is born.”

or annie dillard: “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

and so you pull your weary and broken self off the couch. you rise to the occasion, the occasion called life. you cook and you freeze for your friend. you notice the snowflake tumbling. you fall asleep counting the mercies and wonders the day brought to you. you climb the stairs one more time when your little one calls to you, “mom, can you come talk?”

you live and you breathe, and you lift your friends’ struggles onto your shoulders. you vow to bend over the sickbeds suddenly before you, and moisten parched lips, and drink in pronouncements. you will fight for tight parking spots on the days when you drive them to hospitals. you will walk with those friends for as long as it takes.

and along the way you will make clear to the universe, and to the depths of your very own soul: these hours are precious, are sacred, and with all of my soul, i will fill each and every blessed one with the purest, clear-eyed attention to beauty and wisdom and all that is so deeply holy.

i promise. we promise.

with all of our hearts, amen.

just last night, as i was shuffling off to bed, i got a note from a dear friend of the chair, one whose tenderness is measured in part by the way she strolls the farmers’ market in summer filling bag after bag with organic lettuces and various greens for her decades-old hard-shelled friends, tortoises she’s tended for as long as 40 years (if not longer). and that dear friend, who also has tended lovingly to her aging papa, and to his rose bushes and his plot of home-grown tomatoes, she wrote to say that her papa had died this week. and so, for her, we send love, and deepest sympathies. as she wrote in her note: “it was the day i’d been dreading for 20 years.” 

for everyone — and the someones they love — who is suffering, or struggling, or desperately straining to stay afloat, we hold you up in light and in love. in prayer and petition without end.

* the beautiful wise words above came from my dear friend who writes the beautiful blog, “on the wings of the hummingbird.” the link to her post is above…..

a question hardly seems proper, but knowing it will unearth bounties of wisdom: what woke you from the sleepwalking?

as if a dream…

as if a dream

the last flicker of red tail light just faded from the alley. i’d pressed my cheek as close to the glass as i could press — short of stepping out into the near frozen morning — straining to see the last dab of red glow fading away.

and, like that, poof, he’s gone.

my little christmas dream, my wish come true, has come to its hollow end. the boy i love is headed back to the college on the faraway hill, where, alone in his dorm room, the light through the window will burn. the green slope between red-brick dorms, one after another all in a square, it will be empty, will echo with the whisper of the few faint footsteps. the kid i love is among the one or two in the college who’ve been granted permission to type straight through the new year.

so christmas here was cut short, cut short by a very long thesis due in two short weeks — or, as i count it, 17 days, six hours and 19 minutes.

christmas this year was condensed. distilled to its short sweet essence.

which, in many ways, made it all the more delectable, all of it tumbled one delicious moment atop another. until last night, as i was clearing the christmas feast dishes, and the lurch in my belly made itself known. he’s leaving again, i remembered. before the dark of the dawn fades, he will be gone, i remembered.

so this morning, i did what mothers too often do: i watched the light fade away, into the too-far distance.

we wait, some sweet homecoming moments, for the light to come in through the distance. and then, on the other end of the dizzying spell of squeezing a hand that’s grown far bigger than ours, and bending low for a kiss to the brow of the sleeping man who’s back in his old twin bed, on the other end of shoulder pressed against shoulder at the cookstove, or plopping on the edge of each other’s bed for one or two thoughts shared in the dark, there comes the hour when the light pulls away, into the darkness again.

and so, in the space in between, we immerse ourselves deep in the holiest way to live: at full and piercing attention. stripping away the parts of ourselves that might otherwise get in our way — the part of ourself that, say, might prefer to do things a particular way; the part of ourself that normally flinches when butter and oil are splattered all over the cookstove (and the wall and the floor), but not this hour when it’s the college kid plying his craft of brussels sprouts bathed in a sizzling skillet of garlic and fat upon fat; the part of ourself that hadn’t planned on going to church on the far end of a one-hour traffic jam, but once we got there, well, i found myself awash in tears at the joy spread across the kid’s face as he remembered the church where he’d once made his first holy communion.

so it goes, when there’s only so much time — and you’re graced with the knowledge that, soon as it begins, it’s tumbling toward the close. you shrug off all the little things that don’t matter. you set your divining rod onto high alert. and you whirl through the short spell — the too-short spell — of 63 hours and change (including sleep time) and you inhale as if through a double-wide straw.

which, from time to time, is a very fine way to practice the art of being alive. as if the edges of your consciousness were bordered with a high-voltage fence. where, if you drifted into unconsciousness, into not paying-attention, a wee little zap to the noggin would jostle you back into full-throttle live-in-the-moment.

i remember how, in the days just before our wedding, a wise someone whispered to me a trick i’ve tried to ply ever since, even though the original instruction was only meant to pertain to the bride’s walk down the aisle: freeze frame the moment, the wise person intoned. take snapshots in your head, all along the way. that way you’ll never forget it.

and so, i attempt to pull that old trick from my toolkit whenever the occasion demands. as it did this christmas. as it did this very short spell when all i wanted was the one thing i found under the tree: both my boys, and their papa, nestled shoulder to shoulder for unbroken hours.

the little guy practically couldn’t let go. we were hunkered down watching a movie, and there were the little one’s arms, draped wholly across his big brother’s chest. loping down a city sidewalk, the big one flopped his very long arm down and around the little one’s cap-covered curly-haired head.

the two of them stayed up late all three nights. i drifted to sleep hearing their hilarity rise up the stairs, around the bend, and into my bed. last night i woke up long enough to hear a line i promised myself i’d memorize, but then, darn it, i woke up and couldn’t quite remember. all i know is it was something about, “you’re the best brother that ever there was.”

which, really, is all i need to remember, to know.

i wished for one thing for christmas. i wished for one thing my whole life long: that through trial and error, and stumble and fall, and mistake after blunder, i might over time figure out how to live and breathe love in a way that was purely contagious, that spread like a rash.

i wished for a womb of love, long long ago. i prayed that the boy i was about to birth would always, always know that love was his beginning and middle and end. i’ve lived and breathed to untangle wires, sandpaper rough spots; to make what unfolds in this house a pure bath of tender-hearted, full-throttle kindness. with a fat dollop of joy.

and this christmas i watched it unfold, one slow frame at a time.

i’ve got the whole roll tucked in my heart.

happy blessed boxing day, and how was your very own christmas?

willie ala brussels sproutsmr. firstborn, ala splattering brussels sprouts, ala christmas feast….

 

an invitation

an invitation

the invitation is broader and deeper than simply offering you a date and a time and a place. yes, there is that (details below). but the invitation i’m gently laying here at the table, it’s a doorway, an entering in….

the invitation is to slow time, to savor, to pay attention, to carve out quietude in the rush and the whirl of your every day.

we’ve been circling around those notions for years now, here at the chair. and somehow, in a mystical, magical, marvelous way, those quiet ideas have tucked themselves into the pages of a book, a book that might plop onto my front stoop any hour now. while i’ve not yet lifted it out from a box, haven’t felt its weight hard against my palms nor flipped through its pages, haven’t marveled forward and back that words typed here in the murky first light of so many mornings have found their way off the screen and onto the page. spelled out in ink — a newsgirl’s primary intoxicant.

but i’ve seen proof that those pages are finally off the printing press. they’re bound, slipped between covers.

any hour now, i’ll christen those pages with my freshly spilled tears.

so it’s time for the invitation.

for starters, consider the book, Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door (Abingdon Press, Oct. 7, 2014), a portable iteration of this old chair. why, you can take it wherever you go. you can bring it to bed, tuck it under your pillow. you can spill it with crumbs (and not have to worry that your keyboard gets jammed with a bit of a cracker). you can climb into a tree, and turn its pages. you can even slink in the bathtub (and not have to worry about glug-glugging your screen under the bubbly suds). it’s the chair unleashed. the chair on the loose. we’ve snipped the cords and numbered the pages.

ah, but there’s something even more enticing than the fact that Slowing Time, the book, can follow you anywhere, can go where’er you go.

and that’s where the invitation begins: my prayer all along has been that what’s tucked in the pages of Slowing Time is simply a field guide into the depths of your holiest hours. my hope is that it might become your whispered companion. a place to begin to contemplate how your life might look and feel and radiate if we dial down the noise, hit pause, and sift through the mess for the shards of the Sacred.

it’s a sketch pad, really, in which the flickers of half-baked ideas clothe themselves in words. and those words become the stepping path into the woods, into the depths. or at least point you in intriguing direction.

professor elisa new, beloved poetry scholar at harvard, talks about how a poem is a “communal resource, a convening space — written in a language we all understand.” it’s a place, she says, “where one human being has tried to make meaning, using a tool — the language we all share — that belongs to all of us. and so, by entering into inquiry, discussion, and interpretation of that poem, we can fully engage in that activity so central to the humanities, that activity of human conversation about what it is really to be human.”

and so, too, with the words you find spilled on the pages of Slowing Time, it’s an invitation to “shared inquiry.” and its words are, at heart, prayer unfurled in plainspoken prose. one someone’s prayer searching, searching for companion — be that gentle journeyer God, or the soulmate you find along your stumbling way, or sitting just inches across from you.

after all, the geometry of the old maple table, and the chairs that are tucked up against it, is the circle. heart linked to heart, hands within squeezing range, eyes close enough together that we can catch the sparkle on a joy-filled day, or the empty hollows in the hours when sadness or grief has eclipsed the light.

it is in those circles of our life — the circles we create out of love, or even when carved by accident of geography — that we find communion. and our own plumbing of the depths becomes shared inquiry, scaffolded exploration. a safe zone, where even our rawest tender spots can be laid before us, with no fear of harm or scorn or raised eyebrow.

still, though, it is in solitude, and in the sanctuaries of time we’ve hollowed out of the day, that the deepest paying attention begins.

as with so many spirit-filled vespers, slowing time — here at the table over the years, most lately every friday morning — has become a practice. practice, as in trying over and over and over to hew closer to the anointed edge at our most blessed core. practice, as in a ritual that surrenders to a rhythm. and, as with all holy acts, the holiness is found burrowing into the nooks and the crannies of a place — an interior, our interior — at once familiar and still to be explored.

it is the nautilus of prayer.

and it is the invitation that pulses at the heart of Slowing Time: use these words, little more than one pilgrim’s prayer, to lead you deeper into your own heart’s vault. settle in. deep breathe. catch the light. embrace the shadow.

and, once you’ve breathed Holiness in and in and in again, lift your eyes, and discover the light of the circle around you, within you. there is Holiness abounding, and it’s ours, radiant with grace.

and here’s the date-time-and-place invitation:

Slowing Time begins here: Reading, Conversation and Book Signing 

Wednesday, September 17 (feast of St. Hildegard of Bingen, the great medieval mystic, composer, writer, visionary)

7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Francis Xavier Warde School at Old St. Patrick’s Church

120 South DesPlaines Avenue, Chicago

(leave it to Old St. Pat’s to prompt the heavens to rain down books before the publication date…)

 

yet another reading, after the actual publication date of Oct. 7, is now inked onto the calendar of a marvelous magical bookshop in Evanston:

Slowing Time Reading and Conversation

Bookends & Beginnings bookstore, a magical bookshop tucked in an alley that feels as if it’s popped off the pages of Harry Potter. Co-hosted by Evanston Public Library. To reserve a seat, please contact Bookends and Beginnings at 224-999-7722.

Thursday, Oct. 9

6 to 7:30 p.m.

1712 Sherman Avenue, Alley #1, Evanston

bookendsandbeginnings.com

and yet another marvel:

Slowing Time Reading and Conversation and Autumnal Joys

Women & Children First, a Chicago literary landmark in magnificent Andersonville, is hosting a reading, conversation and celebration of autumn, Season of Awe.

Wednesday, Oct. 29

7:30 p.m.

North Clark Street, Chicago, IL

womenandchildrenfirst.com

more readings to come…..stay tuned.

and now a question: how do you slow time? (oh, and what will be your crumb of choice to spill onto the pages and clutter the book binding gulley?)

slowing time cover

summer’s succulence

sky lights

it’s the morning after the night exploded.

it’s gentle out now. the pop and fizzle are long gone, replaced by mama wren singing. and mr. and mrs. cardinal chattering, as they imbibe on the annual inebriating feast of plump purple serviceberries, dangling from the bough.

i’m inhaling all of it, as i try for one short spell to push away the worries, the deadlines, the cobwebs in the corners.

this is what summer is for, the reason it exists: to catch the rhythm of your breath, to notice how it flows in time with tide, with water gurgling toward the lakeshore sands, then rolling out again.

this is a day for slicing watermelon, for scooping little balls of sweetness from soft and juicy flesh. for popping back blueberries by the fistful. for paper napkins catching all that dribbles — because you’d never get the fruity stains out of cotton squares or linen.

this just might be a day for cranking up the oven. and the grill, of course. but one short blast of cake baking just might be what the declaration of independence does declare.

because it’s a holiday, because we’re practicing the art of stepping out of time, and into the hallowed hollows of timelessness, i’m making like this here is a backyard with picket fence, and i’m leaning across the fence to hand you a recipe for the finest chocolate cake this side of the iowa state fair.

a dear college friend drove down from wisconsin a week or so ago, with a sheet pan of devilish deliciousness and the spelled-out recipe to boot. she left the whole darn cake when she packed up to head back north, and my boys declared it the finest chocolate cake they’d ever slipped between their lips.

with no more hoopla, and one sweet promise: here’s a slice of delicious summer’s succulence, brought to you courtesy of judy smith, who was motored here by one maureen haggerty warmuth. they’re two of the treasures i’ve held onto from my college days. and here’s the treasure to tuck inside your banged-up, battered, much-used tin of recipes. (fact is, this is all-season’s succulence, but since we’re at the fever-pitch of summer, we’ll tag it one for summer’s glory. seems just the thing to ferry to the independence day cake stand.)

minnesota chocolate cake

provenance: my friend judy smith’s dear friend tammi baumann

2 cups flour

1-3/4 cups sugar

1/2 cup cocoa

1 tsp. salt

1 Tbsp. baking soda

ADD:

1 cup buttermilk

1 egg, slightly beaten

2/3 cup oil

1 tsp. vanilla

1 cup coffee brewed

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Beat together your litany of ingredients — batter will be runny.

Pour into greased and floured 9-by-13 pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 to 40 minutes.

frosting:

In saucepan, dump:

1 cup sugar

3 Tbsp. corn starch

1/2 tsp. salt

4 Tbsp. cocoa

1 cup boiling water

Cook over medium heat while stirring, till thickened.

Remove from heat, and ADD:

1 tsp. vanilla

3 Tbsp. butter

Cool frosting and pour over cake.

grab fork. dig in. declare this a day for summer’s succulent sweetness — in all its many flavors.

p.s. there was a rumor wafting about the kitchen that this chocolate-y deliciousness might have won blue ribbon at one of those fine midwestern country fairs. fact or fiction, it won just such an honor here in our humble kitchen. so pinned by the boys who left not a crumb behind on the cake plate…

and what will you be ferrying to your independence day feast? and what’s your definition of summer’s succulence? how would you spend a holiday away from all that weighs you down?