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Category: springtime

tender is the earth

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i am submitting to the tilting of the earth. as the oozy patch of mud that is my very own fraction of acreage leans into the less-diluted rays of the great burning star that is the sun, pivot point of the universe, as adagio quickens, and feathered choristers raise their warbles by decibels upon decibels, i allow myself to be wrapped in the soft skeins of earth unfurling, earth letting loose its tight and clenched long-winter’s grip.

i am brushing up against its tendrils, its newborn threads, as i tiptoe down my bluestone walk. as i plop my bum on bluestone stoop, the one that hasn’t yet released its wintry chill. i crouch down low, and run my fingertips across the frilly tops of fronds, just beginning to poke beyond the crust of earth, just beginning to contemplate the art of opening, sun salutation of the new spring garden.

i can’t get close enough — save for rolling in the dewy grass, smearing fists of mud across my knees and elbows. or climbing up a tree, to discover how it feels to be a bird, warbling across the heavens, toes clinging to the bough.

all in all, my daily pull is to the pulse point where earth and sky entwine, where winter’s hibernation gives way to springtime’s insistent release. i drink in the lessons, the unspoken parable: it’s letting-go time, it’s time to uncoil, time to put aside the winter pose — one born of sorrow, yes, and a hollowed-out sense of quietude — time to practice the gentle nudge, bow down low to the invitation, the one that whispers, “i offer healing, if you lean in close, breathe deep the wholeness, the promise, of the season.”

i allow myself, day upon day, hour after hour, to be soothed by the blessed balm of earth at its tenderest. of earth when heaven first begins to draw forth what’s been tucked inside for all the weeks and months of darkness.

it’s dawned on me, as i make my daily rounds of close inspection, that the truth of springtime is that of revelation, long-held secrets breaking through the cloak that kept them shrouded, not seen, forgotten.

the beautiful, come springtime, is no longer under wraps. those yellow petals clinging to the branch? the tight buds of hyacinth just periscoping through the earth? it’s all creation trumpeting its truths. it’s all been there all along, sacred DNA tightly wadded, awaiting heaven’s cue.

and now it’s come, the call to rise and shine and strut the fresh-born splendor; must have tiptoed in while we were napping. so now, perhaps, it’s time for us to ponder too what’s been hiding deep inside of all of us, while we waited out the winter.

and while i wonder what the days and weeks ahead might bring, what beauties might be on the cusp, i’m savoring this tender interlude, these holy blessed hours when all the earth is gentle invitation, and balm for where the winter wore me raw.

i seem to be transfixed — you might call it “stuck” — by the slow unfolding out my door and windows. day by day, week by week, i’m keeping watch. mesmerized would be the word. drinking deep the healing offered by this holy blessed earth, the one so alive in spring. 

since my offering feels thin today, i’ll add to it with two addenda. the first is a celebration of a blessed angel among us, the cook in the night kitchen of what was once called children’s memorial hospital (and now has someone’s too-long name attached). just last night she wrapped up 50 years on the job. a half century of serving up love and prayer, with a side of oozy grilled cheese. one of my beloved nurse friends let me in on the chapter’s ending, so i dug into my archives and found this story i wrote for the chicago tribune in 2009, when she’d been on the job for a mere 43 years. 

to whet your appetite, perhaps, here are the first few paragraphs of miss bettye tucker’s story: 

One by one, night light by night light, the rooms go dim in the not-so-hushed place where sick children, broken children, dying children, finally fall into sleep.

One by one, room by room, the big people who’ve held little hands, dried tears and rocked fevered babies all day long at Children’s Memorial Hospital surrender for a moment their long night’s watch.

It is time for all the keepers of the children–the parents, the nurses, the doctors, the ones who mop the floors, the ones who keep the respirators breathing in and out–to be fed by the comfort-slinging cook in the night kitchen.

This much-loved healer with a soup pot and a prayer is known to all as, simply, Miss Bettye.

bettye tucker

miss bettye tucker

the other offering is the latest of my roundups of books for the soul, with works that blew my mind from rabbi jonathan sacks, and a patron poet-saint of the chair, dear mary oliver.

what lessons do you learn from keeping watch on early spring?

grape hyacinth

holy ground

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from Pope Francis’ encyclical, June 2015, quoting Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew:
“It is our humble conviction that the divine and the human meet in the slightest detail in the seamless garment of God’s creation, in the last speck of dust of our planet.”

in these hours when my heart feels hollowed, i find myself staring out windows, through panes of glass, into the garden, sweeping my eyes across the mostly fallow faded landscape. mostly, all i feel is empty. the thrum of a heart’s ache drowning out the usual song. but then, i fine-tune my attention, i look more closely. i am drawn out the door and into the rinse of springtime’s particular shade of sunlight.

it hurt, at first, to imagine this year’s garden absent its cheeriest animator, the old striped cat curled into his napping coil, occasionally opening an eye, giving chase to a robin, lumbering back to the spot where he crushes whatever nubs tried to grow beneath him.

but then i started to tiptoe down the bluestone walk. i plopped onto the stoop just beyond the kitchen door, beside the mailbox that holds all my garden tools. i looked for signs of life, of earth’s wintry crust breaking open, giving way, cleaving apart so the season’s first stirrings had room to trickle back to the surface, bursting forth.

more than any year in a long long time, this month of march has my fingers — and my heart — yearning to dig in the dirt. to brush away dried and shriveled grasses. to cut back stems and sticks that reach to nowhere. to nip and tuck and prune. to break apart the winter’s hard-pounded soil, to comb through clumps, sprinkle seeds, tuck in roots. to make way for the earth to bloom in the ways it so insistently blooms, hope-filled spring after long hard winter, again and again, year after year. no matter the pounding our hearts have taken.

it’s holy ground, the acres and acres that invite us in, to begin a close and careful examination. to witness the astonishments the earth offers up, offers forth.

IMG_7252and so, this Good Friday, this holy friday, i walk in silence, and i whisper the prayer of the earth once again unfurling in beauty. earth knows just how parched our soul might be in this the season of starting over again.

it’s the garden, the woodland, the gurgling of the winter’s thaw in the creek, these are the places that animate the coming back to life — of the earth, and the curled-up spirit within me. the one that just might find the courage to reach once again for the softness of springtime’s return.

i take to heart the words of dear pope francis, above quoting the patriarch bartholomew. i subscribe to the belief that God wrote the Book of Nature, and that each and every unfurling tendril, each and every bulb that shoots down roots and shoots up that periscope of green, each and every quivering of feather or leaf, it’s all here to whisper the presence of the Divine and Holy Wisdom. all we need do is plunk ourselves amid its quiet narrative, all we need do is pay attention, and the lessons and learnings will tumble upon us. breathe healing into our brokenness. breathe hope into our hollows. breathe, again and again, the story of resurrection, of life tiptoeing in to all the moments and places where we thought only death was left in the wake.

may this Good and holy Friday fill you with prayer. and with hope to wash away your deepest sorrow. should you prefer a more solemn meditation for this day of crucifixion, i offer this post from the past, the eloquence of silence.

how do you find hope in the shadow of your sorrow?

snowdrops

tender are the hours

tender are the hours. spring.

even if you don’t yank your sit-upon from the shelf and plop yourself amid the morning’s deeply sodden garden, you can’t help but notice: the air is soft, is velvet-rippled, faint breath against the skin you’ve dared to bare (we’re talking ankles, maybe toes, nothing racier here, folks).

the boughs froth in springtime meringue, the crabapple’s creamy blossom, the redbud’s tight-stitched knots of tonsillar pink. the lilac waiting in the wings. any branch that’s not in bloom is one that’s a filigree of lace-cut leaf, from afar a mist of just-born green.

and birdsong comes in deep striations, the piercing notes atop a bank of blurred and whirling insistence. they seem to never pause to catch their breath, those choristers of each and every dawn.

but the main attraction of the spring, the one that begs the quietest attention, is what unfurls down low, just inches from the warming earth, where loamy mounds (and giddy earthworms) soak up the benevolence of sunbeams, now lavishing the northern hemisphere with increments of extra minutes, day by passing day.

that’s where the bleeding heart (above) dangles from the stem, so many pantaloons pinned to the clothesline. that’s where the lily-of-the-valley unknots its lilliputian bells. and where cerulean clouds of forget-me-not waft above their heart-scissored leaves.

and after a long night’s rinse, whole brigades of water droplets hold their pose, crystal balls suspended, shot through with morning rainbows in miniature. not far away, more animated drops offer pitter-patter, a metronome of plops. the hollow of a hosta’s broad-leaf tongue makes for a shallow drinking pond for ladybug or spider, or my cat who’s never quenched.

and if you keep closest watch on the whole tableau, if you tune into any sign of fluttering — a branch that leaps, a blossom that seems to shiver — chances are, you’ll catch a feathered glimpse of migration’s many gifts. just this morning what i might have mistaken for a hovering cicada turned out to be a hummingbird, one partaking of viburnum’s spicy cocktail.

tender are the hours of the spring.

and tender is the invitation: bring on your thin-skinned self, your delicate spirit. bathe your soft spots, your raw edges, in this pool of life releasing. not long ago, all was clasped in hard-shell incubation, the protective armament of the season of harsh winds and late freezes. but now’s the hour when the letting down begins. when our fragile selves needn’t shudder.

it’s as if all the world, all that blurs the soft edge between heaven and earth, it’s as if all of it is drawing us tenderly out of ourselves, signaling that it’s safe, offering even our unfurling selves a margin of deep-breathing room.

because i’ll always be a believer that the book of nature was one inscribed with lessons to be learned, with wisdom in which to be steeped, i can’t help but notice how this is the season that begs us to come as we are.

to not worry if we’re feeling a bit exposed, because everything about the spring is tender, too. and while we’re finding our way from winter’s harshest hours, and while we’re not yet inclined toward summer’s bold declarations, this in-between time it’s when we too can find safe harbor in the frilly arbors of the begin-again interlude.

and, right in here, i’m feeling on the verge (a word, i find, with roots in the latin virga, which, curiously, and serendipitously, refers to “a slender green branch,” aka the new growth of spring). in just one week, a boy i love will leave behind his college on the hill, and begin whatever’s next. and any hour now, he’ll be climbing into a back seat and driving hours and hours on the highway, because that’s how college kids these days mark passages, they mark them on sandy beaches far from civilization. and their parents — yes, miles and miles away, but never far in heart and soul — they hold their breath all the while. and other friends i dearly love, they are weathering all sorts of crossroads. and, in sum, i am feeling the fragility of all of life. and the world around me only serves to amplify — and yet, blessedly, benevolently, to cushion — that reality.

from the mewling of the baby birds who’ve made their nest above my doorway, to the tissue-paper petals scattered across my stepping-stone path, i am walking through the living-breathing fragility of newborn spring. the in-between season that understands the truth that sometimes we need soft hours, tender hours, to uncoil from what’s been harsh before we spread our wings, our arms, our souls, and bask in all-enveloping radiant golden light.

do you find springtime a tender time? is this a season for you that begs the soft embrace of all that surrounds us?

i spy: hope

snowdrops

sometimes i wonder how the world knows. how it knows that we’re worn-down ragged, out of breath, slogging.

sometimes i wonder how, just at the very minute and second we need the globe to turn just enough for light to fall at just the right angle, for warmth to rise, thermal watt building on thermal watt, sometimes i wonder how deep in the earth the stirring begins, and as the baby’s head crowning at birth, the tender resilient slips of green, of spring, come nudging their way through sodden leaf and over-stayed winter?

how is this turning earth, this warming, awakening, how is it quite so intricately wired to the stirrings deep down in my heart? how, so often, does it answer the call before breath is put to the words?

winter aconiteah, but here’s the rub: it comes with no more sound, no more folderol, than it takes for a leaf to ease out of the way, for the rubbing-up of shoot against snow crust, against compost in the making. the coming of spring, the turning of season, comes in barely perceptible measure.

you need to crouch down low. you need to step outside with intention, with searching. you need to scan the landscape, not from a distance, but close as your knees will bend.

sometimes, you need to pull your hand from your pocket. you need to brush away the sodden. you need to play peek-a-boo with what’s birthed. winter aconite, the nodding head of yellow, the one just above, it’s coaxed from its slumber by radiant light. light that barely perceptibly turns up the heat. shakes off winter.

grape hyacinthand indoors, too, you begin to get restless. you scamper around tossing out dried snips of winter. you trade up for pots stuffed with bulbs, bulbs with the girth of a garlic clove, bulbs that exist for one purpose: to shoot for the sky, unfurl, offer up color and configuration that befuddles the imagination.

who thinks of these things, you wonder? who stacks bud upon bud, a pinecone-like stacking of color and softest perfume, the one that beckons the bees, brings on procreation of the pollinated kind.

and so it begins again, the circle of life. of bursting forth after months of quiet, of stillness, out in the garden. after snow tumbling upon snow. and cold so cold a two-legged someone could barely survive.

but the growing things grow. the winter does not strike them down, not most of them anyway.

the birds come back on a river of wind. warm wind.

the buds return to the branch.

our hearts give a startle. pump with a two-step again.

just when we think we’re on our last wavering gasp. spring comes. promise again.

hope for another round.

and so is written the script, the one that some of us need year after year, never quite learning its lessons fully enough, lastingly enough. we need to be knocked upside the head — knocked by the crocus and snowdrop and the quiet little aconite. professors masquerading as delicate petals.

“hold on,” they whisper, “just a few breaths longer, just a few breaths past when you think you can’t go on. the awakening will come. the birth breaking out of the bleak.”

even the sticks plonked in the vase of warm water: they’ve wriggled with life, with color, with what seemed impossible. and now blooms:

forsythia open

so the lesson is this: the season that comes after the long hard winter, the season that comes with the light and the slow-rising warmth, it is the moment when impossible surrenders. when we breathe in hope. fill our lungs with believing again. when all around we are stirred to remembering, rebirth will come. in one way or another, in ways expected or not. it’s our job to crouch down low. to inspect with intention. to note the stirrings, and breathe in the possible.

the promise of spring comes on quiet, rustles just barely. it demands our attention, those of us who are taught by the turning of season. soon enough it will rise to crescendo. but now, for those who listen to its opening measure, the spring is whispering the promise of delicate but most certain hope.

some fridays i can barely muster a whisper. this is one of those fridays. i’m leaning on pictures more than words to whisper the miracles unfolding all around. i need to bundle up and inhale me some springtime. we’re just on the verge, but the verge it is here. and it beckons…

have you been out inspecting for springtime’s awakening? and if so, what’s tickled your fancy?

bulbs through earth

 

forced

forsythia snow

it’s come to this:

starved, hungry, every pore of our souls aching for release from the waning soot-sodden days of winter, i slide into sloppy old boots. clippers in hand, clippers that haven’t been shaken from their deep winter slumber in too long a while, i trudge across the ice-crusted snows. crunch-crunch goes the sound of my footfall. i pass bumper crops of pellets, rabbit pellets, i presume, and splashes of blood-orange whose origins i can’t bear to ponder. they’re the scant signs of life here in the tundra that is my back garden.

i’m on a mission. a mission to bring on an awakening, a seasonal awakening. and if i need to indulge in trickery, in prestidigitation with clippers, well then, that’s what i’m signed on to do.

it’s simple enough, this magic trick: trudge to your nearest forsythia bush, snip at the neck, all those long-limbed branches that, at this point in the year, look like little more than so many tangled sticks.

ah, but look and look closely: see the nubs tucked close to the stick, the tiniest hands clasped in prayer? those are the wee little blooms in the making, the sepal and stamen all huddled together, awaiting their cue. their cue of course comes from the sun, its angle and surge. any day now, the globe will have spun far enough, aligned us with just where we need to be for the vernal awakening.

but sometimes you just can’t wait. you need to get out there with clippers and boots and hurry it up, put gas to the seasonal pedal. (even when you preach the gospel of savoring the slow march of time.)

oh, there are signs that springtime is coming. they’re trickling in, a bit more by the day. i’ve heard it in birdsong. the birds aren’t checking their date books, aren’t awaiting the thaw. they’re warbling their vernal love-making hearts out, because that’s what you do when your DNA insists you perpetuate the species. you make it your job to whistle up an egg-laying mate. or at least someone with whom you can coo in the cold. and the light? the light is purer, less blue, more white. it’s straining to gather full steam — or something more zaftig than the pale arctic puff that’s kept us shivering in our cotton-lined boots.

my mama, of course, taught me this trick, and her mother before her, most likely. i might come from a long line of seasonal tricksters, miscreants of natural ilk.

it’s called forcing, and it’s plain old alchemy of life: warmth + water = blossoming. and it goes something like this: trudge. snip. fetch. plunk in water, warm water. wait. bloom. voila, you have forced.

i looked up the word force. it’s not pretty. it cropped up in the 14th century, with roots in old french. forcer, “conquer by violence.” egad. guilty as charged, me and my sharp-toothed clippers. too hungry to wait for the seasonal rotisserie to turn up its offerings in natural rhythm.

no, i had to conquer by violence, if snipping a branch at the neck is deemed a violent act (and if you were a bush you’d certainly say so).

and if dragged into the court of seasonal acceleration, i’d plea for a wee bit of compassion. i’d try to explain that here in the wee days of march, here when we’ve indulged in the season of winter with its depths and certain deprivations, we can’t help but respond to the seasonal tug, the one that pulls us, yanks us, into the next chapter. it’s akin to the itch that sometimes finds us leaping ahead in the steamiest novel, to peek at how the story unfolds, who marries whom in the end, and whose days are numbered.

my winter, you see, has taken a serious turn for the dregs in the last couple weeks. people i love are suffering, are scared, are facing the darkest of days.

i’m so itchy for light i won’t be surprised if i strip down to my bare naked legs and pull out a chair to soak up the lamest, the flimsiest of rays. in my snow-laden yard that would be.

but the light that i seek, truth be told, is the light that shines in the soul. illumination of the deepest kind. i pretty much stumble through days  — from hour to hour — with the words of my pleas and incantations rising up from my lips. there is so much to be prayed for. there’s so much at stake.

and that, in part, is what drew me to clomp through the snows, to clip what the old bush had offered. “here’s your rare chance at the promise of spring,” it whispered. and i answered. with clippers.

forsythia table

dear chairs, are you too going a bit batty by now? are you aching for the stirrings of spring? oh, for the day when the wee slips of green poke their hard heads through the soft crust of earth.

so what might be the seasonal rites and holy vespers you indulge in to beckon the resurgence of soul?

 

the truth behind one-handed gardening

one handed gardening

it so happens that at long last — and after hours of thinking perhaps the springtime would never come round again — we are at the dizzying height of the garden shaking off her winter slumbers and exploding every which way.

it also so happens that three weeks ago my exhausted stockinged feet — shuffling up to bed, late on a saturday night — smacked into a slick spot on the hardwood slabs of the family room floor, and, before i could muster the faintest of yelps, i went spiraling through mid-air and kerplunked wrist-first on the wide pine planks of the kitchen floor, several yards from the slick spot.

blurry-eyed, and in advance of assessing the twisted architecture of my inside-out-and-spiraled-around left arm-wrist-hand-thumb, i heard a noise i’ll not soon shake off: krrk, krrk, went the sound of my bones, snapping in twos.

springtime’s garden explosion + left arm strapped in a not-so-sexy black velcro-snug number = an exercise in one-armed gardening.

which has its merits. and not only because it gets you out of the hard work of whipping the beds into shape, reminding the dandelions they are not on your growing list, and generally over-taxing the wee little muscles that run up and down the length of your spine.

why, i thought, this here is a very fine thing. an unavoidable doctor’s order to slow down and, well, deep breathe the springtime’s intoxicants.

in my imagination, i’d penned a quiet pensive missive about how one-handed gardening was, hands down, a blessing. how it forced the slowed-down gardener to do a lot less mucking about in the dirt, and more or less straitjacketed her into the often elusive art of paying attention.

try squeezing the felco pruners with but one hand. try tying back the disobedient anything-but-climbing hydrangea.

try anything other than slowly meandering along the garden trail, observing the wee globes of dew as they dangle from furled fronds of fern. inhaling the knock-you-over perfumes of the lily-of-the-valley, bursting in white-bell clouds this week. savoring the soft morning’s warmth in the thick of the flowering crabapple’s vernal effusion.

in my imagination, i’d gathered up notes, and scribbled pithy wisdoms.

but then this week happened.

and because the chair is a place where we pull up honestly or not at all, i can’t quite quiet myself enough to pen that tranquil dispatch from the one-handed gardener.

truth is, this week is about as far from tranquil as a a week can be. i mention this not for sympathy, certainly, and not for worry, oh heavens no (i’m positively allergic to anyone worrying about me, although i manage to do it in spades all the time). but all in service of this being a sacred place where we can be whoever we are in the moment, no excuses necessary.

fact is, the arm that is now in four parts (two bones, now broken in two) has been throbbing. and one morning this week, i had a nice tete-a-tete with the anesthesiologists as they dozed me to sleep for a quick repair of a body part that had managed to spring a leak. add to the mix, the college kid home for a mad flurry of final-paper writing. and the regular line-up of seventh-grade worries and tummy aches and questions that demanded hard answers half an hour past bedtime.

so my thoughtful musings on one-handed gardening will have to wait for another year. or another thwop on the hard kitchen floor.

and instead of lulling you into tranquility, and slowing down long enough to notice the incremental beauties of the vernal thrust through the earth, i will offer this bit of recycled chair, an essay penned a while back, and one which just this week was published in the pages of the chicago tribune.

it was and is titled, “the sum of infinites,” and it goes something like this:

Mothering: The Sum of Infinites

By Barbara Mahany

The last time I’d seen him, when I tucked him into bed, blew a kiss and closed the door, he was fine. Just really tired, he said, worn out by soccer. And very, very hungry.

But next morning, as I walked out of the downtown parking garage, fumbled for the ringing rectangle in my backpack, tried to find a place to plop the coffee mug, so I could walk and talk and think out loud, I heard the words, “Mr. T is not feeling so good. He’s pretty hot, actually. And his throat, he says, is killing him.”

A series of rearrangements were duly rearranged, numbers dialed, summons plead, before I even spied my desk.

Given precise instruction, exact latitude and longitude of where he’d find the white-and-orange-and-azure box on the bathroom shelf, his papa dispensed the first round of fever-queller, tucked him back in bed, then kept finger in the dike till dear Grammy could ride to the rescue.

Miles away, I was but a distant player, so my part had me checking in every chance I got. Or so we’d scripted. Till I got the call mid-afternoon, and a squeaky little voice informed, “I’m dizzy.” Then asked, “When can Mama come home?”

NOW! was pretty much the word that popped into my head, so I cleared my desk and drove. And once through the blue front door, I dropped my keys and lunged and kissed him on the head.

Oh, the look in those empty eyes told me all I needed in the medical-data department. Those of us who’ve tread this ground, need no compass, no thermometer; we know by heart these dark and murky woods, know by gut just how deep we’re in, and how the road out will be a slow and bumpy one.

And thus began, again, the work of one mama tending to her achy, fevered little person.

By rapid – and rough – calculation, I’d guess this might have been the 90th such round, each one with its own odd particulars, since I’d first put on the mama robes, since Boy Number One was born, nearly 17 years before.

And as I spent the long night dispensing care in the ways my boys have grown to know, to count on, I began to contemplate how love, especially motherlove, is the sum of infinites.

Minute, and barely perceptible, although wholly definable and defining, they are the accumulated brushstrokes and palm presses and finger squeezes that imprint, somehow, on the souls of those whose care – whose fevered limbs, swollen glands, fractured bones, woopsy tummies – we cradle.

Until the fever lifts, the gland goes down, the tummy stops its gurgling, we dole out and dispense our ministrations without surrender to our own bodies’begging for unbroken sleep, or just a chair, or even a bowl of oatmeal that’s not gone cold.

It is the umpteen blankets and pillows you’ve piled on the floor, in that certain way you’ve come to call “The Nest.”

It is the 181 washcloths hauled off the shelf, doused under cool water, wrung out, folded and laid on fevered brow.

It is the 99 rubberbands stretched round just as many glasses, each one so marking it, a badge of courage for the sick one, and off-limits besides – lest you hastily find yourself tending a whole flock of fevered lambs.

It’s the way, without a moment’s pause, and no thought given to germs or contagion, you’ve climbed 3,000 times right into bed beside the hot one, so you are there, should there be a whimper in the night, should you need to climb the stairs one time, or ten, to fill a glass with ice, with honey, with 7-up, with gooey purple fever-buster. Or just because the ailing one left a certain pillow on the couch – and cannot sleep without it.

It is the who-knows-how-many baths you’ve drawn at three in the morning, because the fever won’t go down, and the little arms and legs you once marveled at, now barely ever eyeball beneath the sweatshirts and the soccer shinguards, are shaking like a leaf that barely clings to the branch amid October’s bluster.

Next morn, as you hear the doctor speak the words, “Go straight to the ER,”– thank God, you can count (three) the times you’ve heard that command – you realize that your well will never run dry, that you will pierce the microbes with sharp spear, given half a chance. That you will climb on the gurney, slide your own wobbly self through that CT scan, stick out your own arm to take the IV needles, you will wrestle to the mud whatever pokes and prods come your little one’s way, as you wipe away the alligator tears, and kiss the red-hot cheeks, and hold your breath and wait for all-clear whistles from the ER nurse, the one you now worship because she was so tender in her poking of your little soldier’s brave, brave arm.

And you realize, as you count up the hours of the week, and lose count of ice cubes and teaspoons of germ-killer, that the highway to heroics is paved, pretty much, of the same stuff as the potholed backroad.

That in the end, when all these flus and streps and bacterial pneumonias are past, we will have loved our way to triumph, in a race without a ribbon, a contest with no starting gun, an Olympiad we enter with our heart.

It is through the sum of infinitely loving, and infinite signature touches, that the little ones whose flesh and blood and coos and cries we were handed not so long ago, will grow up wholly defining how it is to be ministered to, to be loved, to be – yes – mothered, no matter who the motherer.

And –as you’ve maybe glimpsed once or twice already, when you’re the one who’s down and your little ones begin to mimic all your ways – they in turn will love as you have loved, will fold the same cool cloths, draw the baths, pour the gingerale, stir the chicken-noodle soup.

And thus our unmeasurable infinite acts will go forth into infinity.

A mighty sum – born, simply, out of love.

so that’s the news from my not-so-tranquil garden trail. tell me what unexpected blessings you stumbled on this week. or spill, once again, the infinite sums your mama once plied on you, or that you’ve doled out to your little ones when they were under the weather…

crouching-down season

crouching down season

for weeks now, i’ve been pausing at my kitchen window, gnawing my lip in gravest consternation, increasingly convinced that all that remained from the long hard winter was a bramble of hollow sticks and empty vines, all dead on arrival at springtime’s doorstep. it seemed their only occupation going forward, this drab tangle in shades of brown, without a hint of pulse, was to poke me in the eye, as i rambled by on my daily constitutional of hope and prayer.

i’d been examining. up close. all but fondling all the nubs and tips, an alchemist and dreamer’s feeble-hearted formula of massage + vesper = resurrection.

alas, morning after morning: blhhhk. nada. nothing. as if the once green-leafed darlings had packed their inner vigors and ditched the premises. (and who could blame them, really? why stick to land of ice and snow, when just a few time zones south, they might employ the verbs of growth: engorge. swell. unfurl. stretch out. pullulate. fructify. climb toward the sun.)

deep inside my heart, i waffled. part of me would not give up. part of me was certain that the weary sticks and naked vines had merely overslept the vernal alarm clock. snoozed straight through weeks one through three of april. but part of me worried: this might have been the winter that did them in, poor over-taxed citizens of middle-american landscape.

i’d begun to plan a mass funeral — shovel and compost bin, key attendants.

ah, but overnight, dear Lord in heaven, they’ve stirred. they’ve greened. they’ve surged beyond the confines of their sticky-ness and taken on the curves and frills of a season that begs you bend your knees, drop your bum, and crouch to down where the dew-drenched blades of grass tickle your behind, and leave you spotted when you rise, go about your ways, not minding what the neighbors think of your moistly speckled derriere.

and so, mad woman that i am when at last the pullulation comes, i can barely contain myself in the early morning’s light. i’m tumbling out the door before the coffee’s gurgled even once. i am drinking in the dawn’s overnight attractions. and in the cloak of morning silence you can all but hear the supple-throated sweethearts — the knobs of peony thrusting from the earth, the butterballs of daffodil shoving off the dirt, the tenderest furls of fern and forget-me-not lining up on stage — you can all but hear them warbling, “look at me, look at me. see how much i’ve grown!”

such show-offs, there in the loamy beds. but wouldn’t you? if you’d survived winds that howled like packs of wolves, and temperatures that flash-froze you into icy blocks of bulb?

and isn’t this, the turning of the season’s page, once again where we’re all but grabbed by the shoulders, and commanded to stand still, to look around, to absorb the lessons of the earth, the sky, and all that flutters in between? isn’t this when metaphor awaits, at the tip of every branch? when mama bird re-teaches patience, and diligence, just in case we’ve lost our place and need remedial tutoring in the truths of seasonal rebirthing?

it’s as if the Grand Designer of the spinning globe, the One who turns us on our axis, knows all too well our abbreviated attention spans, and how, every few months, the lesson plans must be pulled from the pile so we can stumble once again over Seasonal Wisdoms 101.

this year, with winter in third or fourth overtime, and spring in game delay, it seemed the lesson on the chalkboard, the one we were inking over and over in our college-ruled, spiral-bound notebooks, was the one that tested faith, the one that made us think long and hard about the fallow spells in our lives when we’ve lost all hope of growth or resurrection. when we’re down to our last fumes, and can’t for the life of us figure a way forward, toward the light behind the clouds.

so here’s the pop quiz: when, week after week, there is no sign of change, not a bare iota’s indication that something deep is stirring — in the earth or in our soul — shall we a.) give up all hope, pack our bags and wave the “i-surrender flag,” or b.) mumble words of flickering devotion, strap on our mukluks, and plop ourselves beneath the climbing hydrangea, certain of its — and our — eventual return to glory?

here’s a peek at the answer sheet:

crouching down climbing vine

and, just in case you need your seasonal wisdoms in living color, here’s what the heirloom hyacinth had to say about hope in the early hours of this morning:

crouching down hyacinths

spelled out in depths of delft blue, and perky furls of newborn green, the truth of course is this: rebirth will surely come, once the long hard work of winter’s deep-down concentration, and intricate re-distillation, is finally, finally utterly and messily complete.

and then the soul-filled springtime comes in gallops. you might get dizzy trying to drink it in.

what, pray tell, is unfolding in your vernal syllabus? or simply in your corner of the globe, where you crouch down to study springtime’s oft-repeated wisdoms?

because yesterday was “poem in your pocket” day, and because a friend i love sent me a poem of wisdom from meister eckhart, i happened to scroll to the bottom of the page, where i found this little morsel, apt for this meander about the slow-unfurling of the springtime….(and of course, eckhart is far more profound in 23 words than i could ever hope to be in nearly 900…)

“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”
— Anais Nin

it’s the light

it's the light pillow

like the birds in the bushes who’ve flicked on their vernal soundtrack, and the flower heads who nod toward the arcing solar orb, i too follow the light.

and this week, as i dragged through the dregs of my soul, fearing i might never emerge from my doldrums, i finally, miraculously, felt an uplift inside. as if a spark plug was at last being triggered. as if, just before the final sputtering out of what was left of my oomph, something deep down went kerplunk, a sort of holy rejuvenation. i took it to be a hand extended from on high. i all but felt the Divine yank me out of the murk and into a passing-by sunbeam.

it’s all the wonder of a globe that spins on an axis, a globe that moves us into and out of shadow. and our time out of shadow is coming, is inching our way. minute by minute, hour by hour, we are leaning into the light.

and while i love winter as much as anyone — save for the moose or the elk who stay out all night and romp to their hooves’ content — and while, even amid the mountains of charcoal-gray piled-high snow cliffs, i am still able to marvel at the ice-crystal diamonds scattered across the morning’s white-scape, i admit that all these long months with not enough sunbeams had taken its toll on my spirit.

i was lagging. was heavy with worry and doubt and confusion.

and then the flutter came. the flutter of lightness, deep down just under my heart. suddenly, my feet weren’t so heavy. nor my shoulders so flinched.

hope was the thing that stirred. hope that the lightness was coming. that, soon, the bare naked branches would slip on their vernal green gloves. the nubs of resistance would push through the hard frozen crust of the garden.

spring would arrive, would demonstrate the power of birth after death, after long winter’s doubt.

it’s as if the message is distilled into each of the light beams, the ones that now spill through the smudged panes of glass. the ones that pour across floorboards, daring us to look down and notice. to pay attention. to remember: light follows shadow. even deep down in our souls.

especially deep down in our souls.

because, year after year, spring after winter, the truth comes again and again: there is light. and there’s life all over again. all tender and fledgling and new.

and if you keep your eyes and your heart attuned to the heavens, and what spills from above, you — like the sprouts reaching up from under the snow — will come to know, once again, the holy exhalation of being deeply alive.

its the light daffodiland so we turn a page, and turn forward our clocks. it’s time for more sunlight to seep in to the cracks and the crannies so starved in so many ways. any hour now, my house is filling with faraway and deeply-loved family, so i’m bustling along. scooping up light beams wherever i go. 

blessings to you this light-filled week. anyone else at the end of their dim-lit ropes before this week’s saving grace reached in and rescued?

 

bathed in birdsong & other stirrings of mama earth

crocus stirrings

dispatch from 02139 (in which, despite snow clouds that scuttle across the sky, the determined among us set out to scratch up vernal offerings….)

all week, at a mere 20 minutes past the hour of five, i’ve been catapulted from my slumbers.

once or twice by the fat cat launching into his basso morning rumble (always a sign of impending doom and certain need for rug-cleaning spritz-spritz-spritz). but more often, and more insistently, it’s the mad chorus of matin birdsong that up and lifts me from my lumpy pillow, and sets me sailing for the windows.

there, ear to glass, i drink in all the early-morning world of cambridge has to offer me. i marvel that amid the cobblestone streets, and the colonial lean-to’s, amid the screech of 21st-century brakes and the occasional ambulance roaring by, whole colonies of bird have fluttered in, hunkered down, and think nothing of opening wide their throats and letting loose with heaven’s warble.

there are those in this house who grumble thusly, who reach for my swift-abandoned pillow and make of it a helmet, a sound-shielding barrier, one that muffles pre-dawn birdsong.

ah, but that is not me.

no, i’m the girl who drinks it in like coca-cola through a straw.

i was, you see, born and raised on bird.

(that cinematic signature of suburban america circa 1960, the family movie, regularly took time out at our house from birthday party, graduation, backyard frolic to pan up to the trees where, for a good five-minute stretch, mr. scarlet tanager, or sir indigo bunting would hold the frame, while abandoned children must have wondered why their markings ever paled to celestial feather. as recently as yesterday, The Original Mama Nature, as we sometimes call my mama, sent out one of her “nature notes” informing all five of her brood — spread all across the continental US — that “The Ducks are back,” as urgent a missive as you’ll ever get from her.)

when you grow up knowing in a blink the orange breast of the robin, the red flash of cardinal, and the iridescent blue of said bunting, you tend to not only pay attention but feel the hard-wired zing of ornithological amazement, in whatever form it brushes, wafts or flutters by you.

and this week, the signal that it sent — loud and clear and unshakably — was that the winter world would soon be melting, and once again the globe would spin toward full-throttle rebirth.

the birds don’t always wait for mercury to make it comfy cozy. they’re impelled by slant of light, by intensity of wattage. and, according to their inner-clickers, it’s high time to get this springtime show on the road.

a girl who pays attention has little choice but to play along. so one of the amusements with which i amuse my wandering eye is one i call spot-the-crocus. as i dilly-dally off to reading room or lecture hall, i pay no mind to cracks and heaves in the sidewalk (always a dangerous distraction). rather, i scan the sidelines in search of anything but brown or gray or muddy-olive-drab.

and, more and more these days, i am hearing the bing-bing-bing of hitting the crocus jackpot. now that the last mounds of snow are melting into oblivion, the sweet nodding purple heads are rising up and offering resurrection. “you’ve made it through the long, hard winter, through howling winds and winter boots that weighted down your feets like so many pounds of ore,” they seem to whisper. “’twill soon be the day when you can bound down the stairs and out the door in little but a sweater. a pink sweater, even. rather than the charcoal gray and black you’ve worn since winter solstice.”

i am feeling hope. but this year, too, with warming winds, and vernal light, comes a hard-to-ignore wince deep down inside. we’ve been told that it’s a common ail of spring for all the nieman fellows. our year of sumptuous living is, undeniably, inching toward the final chapters. and at the speed with which the weeks whiz by, inching is hardly the proper verb. more like avalanche-ing. swallowing us whole. leaving us little time to gasp, to catch our breath, to realize just how soon we’ll be grabbing for the rolls of tape, packing boxes filled with books, and heading home to sift for months through these holy blessed hours, and try to figure out how in the world to live up to all we’ve learned and dreamed and promised.

but that’s the puzzle for another day.

today, this holy silent day of somber friday, i will go deep within. i will wrap myself in sunlight and birdsong, i will watch the sky, and feel the rumble of the earth beneath my knees. i will find my way to the monastery. i will unfurl prayer. and, as i always do, i will let the noisy flocks carry off my hopes and fervent whisper to that up-high station on its way toward heaven.

do you, too, scan high and low for peeps of spring? and how do you go still — if you do — as we enter into these holiest of days in the roman christian calendar? 

 

of promise, once again

they beg no attention.

they are, simply, bent. bowed in humble salutation, yellow heads drooped, petals clasped in chilly huddle. there beside the soot-stained crust of snow.

they neither stamp their feet, nor clap their wee appendages, calling scant attention to the fact that they defy the icy crystals, heave big load upon their tender shoulders: they are the harbingers of heartbeat, of promise, once again.

“there will be stirrings just around the dreary bend, what is bleak will end,” they whisper, should you put your ear to where the words emerge.

oh, i never can remember what their name is, at least according to the botanists. instead, i call them “miracle,” balm for winter blahs.

as these last gasps come from all of us, come from earth, come from sagging spirit, as the wonder of the winter white turns to mucky brown of spring-that-will-not-come, i seem to forget every year to watch for them.

they leap out while i’ve not noticed, have done their work beneath the snows, labored in silence, unfurled without witness.

they are, like so many gracenotes along the way, that hushed brush of the divine–so often cloaked as mother earth–that present themselves at the very moment when otherwise we might succumb, throw up our arms and flop defeated to the couch.

there is, if you keep watch, a holy vein of resurrection all through life.

just when we think we’re broken, along comes someone, something, to haul us back from the empty brink.

so it is with the fellow on the el car who spies our weary face, our nearly-buckled knees, and leaps up to give his seat. he and his tattooed neck showing gallant empathy.

or the boychild who spies you wincing at the kitchen sink, and rushes over to rub your achy back, tells you in 8-year-old bravado, “go sit down, i can do the dishes.”

or, for those of us who count on bird and tree and sprig to offer counsel, dish out therapeutic session without the hefty fee-per-hour, there comes this time of year a subtle tapping on the shoulder, urging us on, giving reason to believe.

there is, for starters, the sun coming up each morn, the dawn arriving earlier and earlier as if the burning ball of gases realizes fully there is work to be done, a whole half planet needs its thaw; the list of chores, endless.

trees must bud, erupt in blossom. birds, any week now, will catch the wind, fly northerly, land in our branches, weave nests, lay eggs, pluck worms.

bulbs, already wakened, will push their way through dirt, make us swoon with all their cobalt blues and oyster pinks, golden trumpets, in a thousand shades of butter.

the light itself is purer now, lands on the countertop in ways that call us to attention, make us glance out the window, notice, return to task, emboldened.

and then, there in muddy crevices, knots of green poke through. unfurl. offer moment’s tingle, make you stop as you fumble for the keys.

once again, the promise comes. the earth has turned, the seasons haven’t frozen in their tracks. something’s stirring, gently, defiantly, persistently.

once again, winter thaws to spring, and so too we glean the vernal message: after months and weeks of slogging through the knee-high drifts, the mounds, the muck, when shoulders sag and heartbeats flag, alert your eyes, your ears, and soon your nose……

you’ll be wrapped, presently, in the envelope of resurrection. what has slept, will wake. what was still, will stir again.

the way hasn’t been lost, merely hushed before crescendo.

march gives way to promise, once again.

have you spied a sign here or there of reason to hope? is the long winter wearing you down? have you given in to the clump of $2 daffodils at the grocery store, hauled ‘em home as if essential vernal tonic?