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Category: new chapter

a new quiet. again.

i sometimes think it will always be stepping into the new again. it will always be let’s-see-how-this-goes. the undulations of life, a whirl of beginnings and endings and all those elevations between.

this week we packed up the joy blast who is our second miracle child, the one who’s been hovering around the dinner table for months now, patiently kindly engaging in hours-long conversation nearly every blessed night. the one who slept till nearly dusk plenty of days, and stayed up watching old films till the wee wee hours. his raccoon-like hours became a rhythm i knew. the house hummed accordingly. but he’s gone now, back at that little college on a hill in smack-dab-middle ohio, and the absence is raw still. still hurts around the edges.

and this time, there’s a new quiet at home. these will be the first new weeks without the rhythms of someone else’s work life. all these red-ringed months, the other writer in this old house got dressed for work even when work was what happened mostly up in his book-lined office across from the top of the stairs. there were deadlines and stories and headlines, too. there was chatter from the so-called newsroom, the one that had been scattered to bedrooms and nooks and crannies all across sweet chicago, wherever a scribe lived, hung his or her reporterly hat. all that has gone hushed now. not even the sound of a keyboard clackety-clacking. he had to turn in the laptop, and the long line at the apple store means you wait weeks and weeks for a board all your own.

we are a people of rhythms, me and the one who shares this old house. so i’m certain we’ll find one again.

i sometimes wonder how we got here, to this moment, so soon. sometimes look in the mirror to see if i can find the self i’ve known since she was so little, had a gap in the space between two front teeth, just enough of a space to wiggle the tip of my tongue through. the gap is long gone now, and so too plenty of other parts, lost along the way. the losses are wins some of the time. though sometimes a loss is a loss, no doubt about it. same thing with the gains. it’s subtraction and addition, all our life long.

so here we are bumbling around in an all-new quiet, a quiet like never before. as a creature of habit, of course, i’d come to count on the people we were in the everyday. and now readjusting is due. old titles are stripped, though the essence is not. it’s starting all over again and again.

good thing i’ve got typing to do, and plenty of it. i figure i’ll wriggle around inside my hours of typing while all the new rhythms appear. while i see how to fit in this new stretch of time. in the meantime, i thought i’d leave two poems here at the table, poems that put a magnifying lens to the blessings of time, of all the moments quotidian and otherwise. one is from raymond carver, you know who he is, the short story writer who happened to turn a mighty fine poem. the other is from a most blessed woman you might not have known. her name is robbie klein, and her birthday would have been yesterday, but she died a year and a half ago, “peacefully, powerfully,” as her obit in the san francisco chronicle quite emphatically put it. her poem took my breath away when she wrote it, and i asked her back then for permission to share it, to which of course she said yes.

consider how each of these beauties concentrates our focus on the blindingly brilliant blessing of the most ordinary moments of time, and how they freeze-frame the essence, so we can’t help but see its full glory.

 At Least
 by Raymond Carver
 I want to get up early one more morning,
 before sunrise. Before the birds, even.
 I want to throw cold water on my face
 and be at my work table
 when the sky lightens and smoke
 begins to rise from the chimneys
 of the other houses.
 I want to see the waves break
 on this rocky beach, not just hear them
 break as I did all night in my sleep.
 I want to see again the ships
 that pass through the Strait from every
 seafaring country in the world—
 old, dirty freighters just barely moving along,
 and the swift new cargo vessels
 painted every color under the sun
 that cut the water as they pass.
 I want to keep an eye out for them.
 And for the little boat that plies
 the water between the ships
 and the pilot station near the lighthouse.
 I want to see them take a man off the ship
 and put another up on board.
 I want to spend the day watching this happen
 and reach my own conclusions.
 I hate to seem greedy—I have so much
 to be thankful for already.
 But I want to get up early one more morning, at least.
 And go to my place with some coffee and wait.
 Just wait, to see what’s going to happen.
 
 Moments
 by Robbie Klein
 The space behind the waterfall
 The reverberation after a piano key is struck
 The second after hanging up with one you love
 The instant before the match catches fire
 The trace when a cloud covers the sun
 The sliver before sleep comes
 The first raindrop under a tree canopy
 The ebbing of the waves
 The lightening of dawn
 The space between notes
 The bottom of the exhale
 The final brushstroke
 The first drop on the tongue
 The grey before snow falls
 The moment before his fingers touch your face

what prompts you to relish each holy hour?

*photo above is college kid’s room in rare state of clean, only because his teary-eyed mother scrubbed and scrubbed till the sting went away…..

inaugural promise

photo by Jason Andrew/NYT

“we must end this uncivil war…”

as soon as his breath propelled those words across his lips and out into the snow-flecked january cold, i inscribed them on my heart. i hadn’t quite framed it that way, in those four words, so profoundly, so poetically, so imploringly. 

and then, as if that wasn’t enough, the wise old soul whose very fiber has been forged in the white-hot furnace of grief compounded by grief, he all but unbuttoned his coat, pulled back his ribs and showed us what burns in that cavity: “my whole soul is in it,” he said, as if speaking to each and every one of us, as if elbows were plopped on our very kitchen tables, eyeballs gazing at eyeballs, mugs of coffee just off to the side, instead of there in the sunlight and shadow of the nation’s capital. then he all but whispered it again: “my whole soul is in it.” and that’s when i whispered, “mine too.” 

having just witnessed — from the edges of our seats — how close this fragile experiment in democracy came to crashing into splintered bits, having lived under a poisonous cloud of daily assaults on decency, straining to stay steady, to keep from being sucked under in the shifting quicksands of moral decay, of a nation under the false premise that license had been given to spew venom from the checkout line to the capitol steps, i am more certain than ever that this is not a one-person parade. if we stand a chance of shoving this moment in time toward the light we claim, toward the peaceable kingdom we believe is possible, well then every last one of us needs to get to work, to chip in, to put one foot before the other in a slow walk toward mercy and justice for all.

my inaugural promise is this:

i will cloak myself each and every day in humility and gentle spirit, the surest vestment for the hard and holy work ahead. for months now i’ve tiptoed in the darkness to my kitchen table where i’ve lit a candle and whispered the words of confession. “most merciful God…” i begin. “…we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. we are truly sorry and we humbly repent.”

i will not reflexively shut my ears, close my heart, turn my cheek the wrong way. i will hear them out, whoever it is. i will try, oh i will try, not to leap in with my insistent retort. not to interrupt. not to wield the sharp sword of assumed superiority, not think that my way is the right way, and all else is wrong. i will try, i will try, to step into the other guy’s shoes. to imagine the hurt, or the fear. to look for a gentle way in, to open just a little bit wider the doorway to some common ground. even if only fraction by fraction.

i will actively step into kindness. into imagining the unexpected waft of goodness that might just turn the tide of someone else’s dark day. i will model the thousands of kindnesses that have come my way — the sacks of apples left on my stoop, the tray brought to my hospital bedside, the steaming hot chicken pot pie once delivered on an arctic cold night, to name just a few. 

i will carve out time even amid the whirlingest of days for whoever taps me on the shoulder, looks me in the eye, and whispers, do you have a minute? 

i will — in some way, shape, or form — seek out foreign terrain, the realm of those who might be quick to dismiss me: too white, too old, too left-leaning. and begin with the light-seeking questions: what keeps you awake at night? what do you dream? what brings you joy? what makes you cry? where does it hurt? who do you consider to be the most heroic human you’ve ever known? and how so? what’s one act of kindness you’ve never forgotten? 

because i realize my impotence for change-making at the structural level, i will pinpoint one not-for-profit effectively working toward solution — be it reuniting children separated from parents at the border, or ferreting out all vestiges of racism and bigotry from the nooks and crannies of america, or protecting wetlands from the ravages of greedy exploitation — and i will commit to shaving off a dollar here, a dollar there from my weekly spending and send off occasional bundles from my consciously set-aside sum.

photo of Amanda Gorman by Patrick Semansky

but even more than dollar bills, the currency i commit to this campaign is the craft i ply each and every day: mine is a calling to words, words as instruments of peace, words as the silken thread that weaves together uncommon hearts, words that open doorways into long-locked corridors. as the beautiful and blessed national youth poet laureate amanda gorman so perfectly put it in the wake of her inaugural poem: “words matter. we’ve seen over the past few years the ways in which the power of words has been violated and misappropriated.” she sought, and i seek with her, to “reclaim poetry as that site in which we can repurify, resanctify the power of words. and to invest that in the highest office of the land.” to invest that in every office of the land, elected and otherwise. from the humblest foot soldier to the commander in chief. and to that, i say amen, amen. 

we must end this uncivil war. and my whole soul is in it. 

what’s your inaugural promise?

the cartography of discovery, one page at a time

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i am finding my way, or trying anyway, one page at a time.

the stacks of books are growing at a precipitous, and possibly murderous, rate. it’s not quite as death-defying as the bibliophiles who cowered on the cover of middle june’s new yorker, the brilliant bruce eric kaplan’s “bedtime stories,” which made me laugh out loud (in sorry self-recognition). but it’s growing at a rate that might make ol’ jack and his beanstalk shudder.

certainly propelled by the question of the season — what will you do with your one wild and precious life? — i climb the stairs of this old house, this increasingly arthritic house (the old wood slabs and my old bones now creaking in something akin to unison). i am, more often than not, carrying a small armload of books. i carry them, logs to the pyre, to see what i might kindle from the depths of their pages.

IMG_0265my destination is the nook by the window that’s become my signature perch. my aerie. the crow’s nest for those not tossing on the seas, but merely tossing in the undulations of her own uncharted life.

i am, i suppose, reading my way toward some more certain path. and, more often than not, i find myself inside poetry. i find poems the surest way toward clarity. it’s the way a poem illuminates the barest wisps of the everyday, the quotidian. imbues those moments with the volumes of understanding, or wisdom, i’ve always sensed. poetry puts dimension, puts shadow, light, and a spectrum of color, to the otherwise unnoticed.

and therein i find what i call sacred. the holiness of the every blessed moment. if only we stop to mine the depths, the strata, the igneous rock bed beneath the flimsy shale.

this week, as i squirm inside the borderless plateau that is my newfound station, as i arch this way and that, wondering where my path is hiding, i stumbled onto this most perfect poem, one that almost seemed to be a polaroid of the moment in which i find myself: the work of my lifetime, mothering, now coming to a turn.

but what i love the most about this poem, “things you didn’t put on your résumé,” by the brilliant minnesota poet laureate, joyce sutphen, is that it holds the everyday up to the light. shines incandescence on the otherwise invisible. she says it more pulsingly and achingly than i’ve ever managed to capture it (though i wrote three books trying…..)

so from my corner nook in my window seat, looking out into the linden boughs and the serviceberry where the sparrows romp, here’s the perfect poem for this moment when i am looking back at all that’s been, missing it terribly, and wondering where oh where will i next find the closest thing to holiness in my everyday?IMG_0262

Things You Didn’t Put on Your Résumé
by Joyce Sutphen

How often you got up in the middle of the night
when one of your children had a bad dream,

and sometimes you woke because you thought
you heard a cry but they were all sleeping,

so you stood in the moonlight just listening
to their breathing, and you didn’t mention

that you were an expert at putting toothpaste
on tiny toothbrushes and bending down to wiggle

the toothbrush ten times on each tooth while
you sang the words to songs from Annie, and

who would suspect that you know the fingerings
to the songs in the first four books of the Suzuki

Violin Method and that you can do the voices
of Pooh and Piglet especially well, though

your absolute favorite thing to read out loud is
Bedtime for Frances and that you picked

up your way of reading it from Glynnis Johns,
and it is, now that you think of it, rather impressive

that you read all of Narnia and all of the Ring Trilogy
(and others too many to mention here) to them

before they went to bed and on the way out to
Yellowstone, which is another thing you don’t put

on the résumé: how you took them to the ocean
and the mountains and brought them safely home.

“Things You Didn’t Put on Your Résumé” from Carrying Water to the Field: New and Selected Poems by Joyce Sutphen, University of Nebraska Press.

simply: what are the things you don’t put on your résumé? 

never the closets so clean…

we’d expected to weep the whole way home. but then, minutes before the last goodbye, minutes before i pressed my heart against his chest, sealed in every prayer, tried not to turn on the tears as if a faucet, the fellow in the car parked behind ours tapped us on the shoulder, pointed toward the left rear tire and mentioned it all looked, well, rather deflated. (sort of like me, if i’d been a round rubber tire…)

it was a nail. a big one. one so big it might have been used to hold up a whole house, all on its own. it was a nail that begged for attention. how considerate of that nail that it gave us something decidedly urgent to think about, there in the trench of a long-awaited goodbye.

it was sunday in small-town america and the one gas station in town wouldn’t be open till monday. and the next nearest town nearly struck us out, as it started to look like the law student among us would never make it to his 5 p.m. flight back to his first day of classes (on our third at-bat of the short afternoon, after striking out at two tire stores that decided to take that particular sunday off (with cheery hand-scribbled notes taped to the door to tell us so) we finally got a hit at walmart, where the kindest crew in the world got everything fixed lickety split, and we sailed on to the john glenn international airport, where son no. 1 triumphantly — and barely — made his flight back to law school…).

and in the same way that those paragraphs above have detoured this little tale from its narrative thrust (this is a story about departures and aftermath), the behemoth of a sharp object in our left rear tire served to do the same on sunday afternoon: a.) it gave us something uncharted and urgent to think about, and b.) the quest for a tire sans sharp object made for the william tell overture rising louder and louder in my head, and buried a sweet little victory into an otherwise departure-filled day.

and then we got home.

home to this house where the sound of silence — the absence of footfall across the creaky boards of his room, the absence of quarter-hour showers, and doors opening and closing anywhere from midnight to 2 in the morning — and the unrumpled state of his bed, all hit me with a wallop monday morning as i tiptoed past that empty maw of a room, and down the stairs into the kitchen he won’t see till the end of november.

it didn’t take long — not too many soggy kleenexes — till i stumbled into what became my survival mode: i’ve been cleaning like nobody’s business. it started up in his room, when i decided, what the heck, why not strip the bed and throw every last thread into the wash. then i hauled out the vacuum, sucked up a summer’s worth of sand (all those star-speckled nights at the beach), all embedded in the braids of his rug and the distant recesses under his bed and the back of his closet.

then somehow i started to strip the pantry of all the stuff that’d be decidedly stale by thanksgiving, stuff that might as well have had his name embroidered on the sides, as they’re all synonymous with him. and then, gathering steam, i bounded down the basement stairs, opened the lid of the bin where, for years, soccer cleats and basketballs and frisbees and goalie gloves have lay in mud-crusted repose, now petrified into archeological artifacts of boyhood.

and so it has unfolded: messy corner after overstuffed drawer. pared, purged, put back in stripped-clean order.

i suppose a cleaning binge is a healthier option than any other available binge. but a binge is a binge and this one’s kept me barreling at breakneck, forget-to-eat speeds.

the truth is i’m not nearly as sad as i imagined, nor do i feel too hollowed, because the kid i love is doing just fine (or so i’ve gleaned from the one short phone call and infrequent texts from gambier, ohio). the kid i love is at a storybook college on a hill, where the professors plop themselves at dining hall tables (the dining hall, by the way, is straight from the pages of harry potter) and invite kids over for time-tested lasagnas. the kid i love is signed up for classes where he’ll read sophocles, thucydides, plato and aristophanes, and wash it all down with aristotle (this from a kid whose summer literary highlights were whatever he watched on netflix late into the night). the kid i love is about to discover his brain on overdrive. and i get to peek over his shoulder, go along for the virtual ride (i think i’ll read me some thucydides, too).

the secret (no secret to all who’ve come before me, but the thing about life is it doesn’t disclose its truths till you’re right in the thick of it), the secret of mothering kids who’ve flown from the nest is that as their world gets richer and wider and deeper, yours does too. because my older kid is taking a third-year law class — a criminal justice class — inside a federal prison, with 12 “inside students” (aka inmates), i get to consider what it means to those insiders to sit in a circle each week with a yale law school professor, and 12 “outside students” (aka kids from yale and quinnipiac universities), and even more emphatically what it means for those kids from cushy law schools to sit side-by-side men in government-issue jumpsuits, under the watchful glare of prison guards. because the one who’s brand new to college is reading old greeks and ancient romans whose words i might never have read (not a lot of thucydides in nursing school) i now get to stumble through those, maybe even catch a thought or a dozen thoughts i’ve never considered before….

i’m sure the bumps will come, and one day i will answer the phone and the voice on the other end will sound wobbly (or not, she says crossing her fingers), and when that day comes i will muster all the strengths stored up in these old bones, and i will stay on my end of the line till clarity comes — or at least some semblance of consolation.

but if my prayers are answered — and i pray them mightily, first thing every morning, last thing every night, a million times in between — the kid i love will find his way in the world, spreading his rare brand of sunshine, soaking up wisdoms and joys and adventures all his own. it’s why we birthed him, after all. it’s why we’ve loved him like there’s no tomorrow, for each one of his 6,596 days (so far; and counting). it’s why we’ve tried to infuse the few scant grains of whatever we know to be true and right and good.

dear kenyon college, he’s all yours for now. do right by my sweet, sweet boy. (with all my heart, i trust that you will, which is what so animates my spirit and brings me such solace.) and dear T, i’m here whenever you need me. and whenever you don’t, i’ll be the one lost in the cloud of old dust and cobwebs.

holy spirit steeple

church of the holy spirit, where the bells toll every quarter hour, nestled along middle path, at the heart of the college

i’ve heard from one or two mothers that this cleaning binge is not a quirk all my own, that in fact it’s propelled plenty a mama through bumps and transitions. what then are the ways you put order back into your days when you feel the world slipping out from under you? 

prayer for the road

law school route

i awoke in the night, weaving the threads of my prayer for the road. 

when the car is packed with the last few things — the ones you only think of as you ramble through the last few hours before buckling the seat belts, checking the rear view mirror, asking yourself if you really did remember to turn off the stove, and lock the front door — you might bow down your head. sometimes, you drop to your rickety knees (or i do, anyway, carefully placing a pillow under the one that especially creaks).

there’s never been a road trip from this old house, nor hardly a medium-long trip to anywhere, even a far-flung soccer field, in which we don’t launch into our prayer that always begins, “holy garden angels protect us.” it’s not that we endow the patron saints of delphinium and hydrangea with any particular highway powers, it’s that long long ago, when someone’s ears were just beginning to parse the garble of vowels and consonants that tumbled from our mouths, he was certain that’s precisely what we were saying. as happens, it stuck. 23 years later, it’s the garden angels who get our road-trip salutation.

that might be the prayer i pray aloud, the heartfelt benediction in lickety-split tempo, not unlike the sprinkling of holy water across a crowd, one last certainty between reverse and drive, but the one that i will murmur all day long, it’s coming from a deeper place, a place that’s been keeping watch, a place that measures growth in fractions of a decimal, when need be, and knows full well when thresholds are being high-hurdled.

it’s the soul of the child i love that i consider my most essential watch. soul, as i sometimes define it, is a weave of heart and hope, of dreams launched and shattered pieces glued back together, the repair becoming the strong point. the repair, the place where resonant lessons are certain to be found.

and so the boy i love — a man now, to be certain — he’s off to law school at the crack of dawn tomorrow. we’re driving him there, all of us. settling him into his grown-up apartment, poking around the landscape, learning about this place, this old new england town, that he’ll call home.

and i will blanket him in the whispered words of the prayer, the motherprayer, that i’ve been weaving all his life. i will pray for solid footing, for a feeling of belonging, being embraced for who he is, and what he brings to any conversation (for what mother doesn’t pray that her child feels whole amid the current, not shoved to margins, the periphery of ill-fit diminishment?).

i will pray for laughter to animate his hours, because deep in the core of study, there is always room for the spray of great good humor, for the gleam that flashes from his eyes, because hilarity is among his strongest suits. and laughter, i’ve long believed, is the bellow of the angels here among us.

i will pray for sacred moments to graze his consciousness, for him to feel a sense of having been touched by the hand of the Divine, to gather up those daily beads of deep-down knowing that he is not alone, he is held in heaven’s light. i will pray for gentle kindness, for those who cross his path to stitch his hours with that unifying softness, the one that reminds we’re all in this, this daily grind toward tiny triumphs, we’re in it together. compatriots on the dusty road of living.

i’ll pray that the pitch of the trails he climbs is within his stride, will stretch him, strengthen his resilience, build capacities. and that the vista from the summits will fill his lungs, charge his heart, give him just the blast he needs to set out again. to take the climb up another notch.

i’ll pray that every once in a while there’s a victory so sweet he can cup it in his hands, hold it, savor it.

i can hardly bear to pray that when the heartbreak comes — and it will come, in varied doses and degrees — he is held and wrapped in arms and heart and love that temper crushing blows, that extract the sting, that salve the wounds and set him on his way again.

i pray, i suppose, that all his life, and certainly on this adventure just ahead, he lives and breathes with the full armament of undying love that i’ve been breathing into him, believing into him, since long before the day he was born, and cradled in my arms.

go with God, sweet scholar. go always always with the God of Purest Love.

xoxox, mommo

that’s my prayer for firstborn, or at least it’s today’s rendition. i never seem to run out of prayers for him. i live and breathe them.

no need to answer, but i wonder what might be the prayer you pray as you set out on today’s adventures?

boxing up the bookshelf

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this is an early draft of a meandering i wrote in the fall of 2016, one that became an essay, Boyhood on a Shelf, that ran, blessedly, in the new york times book review on april 9, 2017. it’s escaped in draft form a couple times already (only for a flash of a moment before i nabbed it and lassoed it back here, where it’s been dawdling), and this time, i’m letting it go because the idea of curating a collection of timeless children’s books is one i believe in, and because i’d love to hear what titles you’d include in such a library. 

one by one, i ran my index finger along the spines of the books. one by one, i remembered. one by one, i slipped the books off the shelf and into the hollow moving box, the books of a boyhood slipping away.

the titles — the hobbit, tom sawyer, the cricket in times square, my father’s dragon, the tales of narnia, a boxed set, harry potter and the sorcerer’s stone, the phantom tollbooth — one by one, each sent a volt of varied wattage.

the american boy’s handy book, for instance, daniel beard’s 1882 instructional for boyhood, “a state of natural savagery,” with its directions on how to build a pine-branch house or a birch-bark canoe, with its instructions on fishing for fresh-water clams, constructing a miniature boomerang or a wooden water telescope, or simply extolling the novelties in soap bubbles, it began to wobble my knees. i remembered the day i’d first spied the centennial edition at a beloved bookshop and carried it home, intent on giving my boy the most old-fashioned life of adventure, and a sure guide to survival as well.

my father’s dragon, the mid-20th-century trilogy of dragon stories from ruth stiles gannett, it had me in tears. as soon as the pillowy pad of my fingertip rubbed against its worn-smooth spine, i was flung back in time, wedged bum-to-bum on the bedsheets, snug against my then-beginning-to-read firstborn in his four-poster bed. turning pages, taking turns turning the pages, his eager fingers pinching the page’s corner, my lazy hand patiently waiting. the bedtimes when words began to take form, when pen-and-ink illustrations were seared into memory, collective memory, his and mine, at once distinct and enmeshed. the bedtimes that colored so many dreams, storybook dreams.

i couldn’t bear to let them all go, so deeply ingrained they were with a life i had loved, a life passage now being tucked in a box, transported miles away, and slid onto a grown man’s bookshelf, alongside tomes on law and philosophy and literature, subjects he now trades in, now is schooled in, subjects that now plot his trajectory.

and as much as i ached to ease them off the shelf, i was heartened to know — deeply — that they mattered to him. that he wouldn’t be home, wouldn’t feel home, till his books — his whole lifetime of books — were tucked on the new shelves in the new place he calls home.

that’s what the books of a childhood, of a boyhood, do: they forever bind us. and, ever after, they take us back, separate and together. they return us to long-ago, to once upon a time.

of all the playthings of my children’s childhood, it’s the books where we shared the most time. trains, my firstborn played with often alone, me off in a corner, occasionally lending a guttural chug or a choo or a whistle, or, later, when he was old enough to imagine all by himself, i’d be down the stairs and around a few bends, rattling around in the kitchen.

but the books, the books were where we nestled, where we sank in deep together. the books are where our hearts did so very much of their stitching together.

and so, the pages of the books — the pictures, the covers, the crinkled dog-eared edges — those are the relics, sacred relics of the years when i was keeping my promise to open his heart, to infuse the beautiful, the gentle, the wise. and the books were my guideposts, my road marks.

the books of my little boys’ beginnings, they were the holy scripture that whispered the lessons i prayed they would learn: ferdinand, the gentle bull? be kind. be not afraid to march to your own music. harry potter? believe in magic. the tales of narnia? defend what is good. tom sawyer? roam and roam widely. and never mind if you tumble into a slight bit of mischief.

no wonder, of all the stacks of clothes, the contents of a desk drawer, and all the other shelves of books, the only one that made me wince, the only one i thought i wouldn’t be able to pack away, to let go, to watch glide out the door and into the glimmering downtown tower that now is home to my firstborn, the only one that stopped me in my tracks was the shelf of my firstborn’s boyhood.

not one to sulk for too too long — only after brushing away the tears i kept to myself — i hatched a plan: as one taketh away, so one receives. as i slapped the long serpentine wrap of packing tape across the top of the book box, i promised myself i’d build a new library, one built on the blueprints of children’s librarians who’ve culled lists of the best of the best. the new york public library’s 100 great children’s books. my little town’s own librarians’ roster of classic picture books, and classic novels, grades 2 through 5, and 5 through 8.

i’d make it my mission, my task of enchantment, to map the quaintest of used book shops. i’d scour the shelves for a particular roster of titles. and, one by one, i’d re-build a collection, a curated collection of children’s books that stand the test of time and, most of all, heart.

in the hours of my heart’s tugging, when the boy i love was moving away for good and likely forever, the one balm i knew to apply was the balm of the bookshelf, the balm of construction, of building, amid the act of dismantling, of packing up and moving away.

it’s not an assignment that comes with a deadline. it took years — and the accumulated wisdom of countless bibliophiles who, over those years, slipped titles into my hands with a knowing nod, or the question, “have you seen this one?” — to build that shelf in the first place.

and it will take years, and the deep joy of engagement, to build the one i’ll bequeath to both my boys, and whoever might be the next little readers to come toddling along.

what titles would you be sure to include if you were building the essential children’s bookshelf?img_8290

that one brave thing (an update)…

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illustration by Antony Huchette, for the New York Times Book Review

just a quick middle-of-the-week update from the courage department…

not so very long ago, i wrote here about trying very, very hard to be brave.

these are some of the words that tumbled straight from my truth-telling heart:

i forget sometimes that i can be brave.

i sometimes think the countervailing forces of the world — the ones that whisper to me that i’m not good enough, don’t belong, won’t pass muster — they’ll knock me down. buckle me at the knees.

…i sometimes think of myself as a chicken. a wimp of the first order. i keep watch on folks who look to be brave, and wonder, “how, oh, how do they do that?” here’s a secret: sometimes when i talk to them, when we both unfold our hearts, i find out that they’re just as scared as i am, but they shush away those nasty whispers. or march headlong into them, never minding the awful bluster.

of course i have to remind myself — over and over and over — of that little truth. that the courage to face fears is sometimes simply plugging your ears to the noise, and deciding to hum your own little courage tune.

and just in case, i’ve come up with a back-up plan, or maybe it’s a fortifying plan. it’s modeled off the vitamins of my youth. it’s the one-a-day plan. one brave thing each day. that’s it.

i understand deeply that the trail up the mountainside comes one footstep at a time. no one’s taking giant leaps for womankind. they’re taking normal human strides, one foot in front of the other, and suddenly they’re at a point that’s halfway up. or nearly at the top.

it’s the one-brave-thing plan. i muster as much courage as it takes for one bold move — sending off the email that makes me quiver in my clogs. making the scary phone call before my voice gets caught in my throat. taking five deep breaths then plunging in.

here’s what happened the day i took a deep breath, and mustered all my courage:

Boyhood on a Shelf, April 9, 2017, New York Times Book Review, page 13.

thank you, and thank you, dear mother courage.

i’ll be back, as always, friday morning. it’ll be hushed because, for me, it’s Good Friday, that day of sacred silence from noon till three bells, the hours of the Crucifixion.

delighted to hear if your courage took you to any heights of which you’d only dreamed….

 

for the children: an inaugural prayer and a promise

teddy and mom, heart in hands

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

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

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

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

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

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

i pray for them all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

comings and goings

dining room window

any minute now, the big rumbling moving van will lurch to the curb out front. a flock of muscled men will emerge, the ramp will be erected at a certain angle, and all day long a flurry of boxes and arms and legs and the contents of a life long lived will parade from house to deep dark truck interior, and back again for more.

by day’s end the house will be boxed into cardboard containers, slapped with tape, labeled. it will be hollowed of all but the fading echo of years spent raising boys, three boys, each now a father living far away, soccer cleats and bicycles long emptied from the garage. the tinkling of forks and knives, from all those family dinners, all those dinner parties, silenced. the flickering of candles i watched as recently as last night, snuffed out.

the next door neighbors, after forty-some years, are moving. and in the flow of life, the rhythm of comings and goings, each exit leaves a dent. a carved-out hole. a dimming and a darkness.

while, for the past 14 years, we’ve mostly flowed side-by-side, not been the sort of neighbors where we dash and ring the bell, borrow a cup of sugar here, a splash of merlot there, love grows anyway. the sight of him, bent and shuffling slowly in the yard, puttering with his tomato plants, stooping down to haul away a branch after storms have tossed the trees. the sound of her, warbling in the early morning, when the screens were in the windows, and the windows open, as she warmed her cords, her lungs, her voice, for the church choir, or the swing concert, or just the show tune of the hour. it will all be gone now. moved three miles north, out of sight and out of ear shot. hardly out of heart.

their presence, one i always likened to knowing someone sturdy was pressed against my shoulder, was most days felt when darkness came, and the lights in their kitchen, or the glassed-in study just beyond the picket fence, or those flickering candles at the dining room table, glowed golden against the twilight, against the cloak of night.

there’s a broad-winged window in our dining room, one i see out of the corner of my eye when i’m at the cookstove. i am often at the cookstove toward the end of day, at dinner time, at put-away-the-day time. and that soft burning light through the window panes, through the bramble of bushes, it whispered from next door: we’re home. life is flowing inside our house, too.

i admit to a lifelong imagination animated by the doings inside houses all along the lane, any lane anywhere. i spend time considering the animation of each and every house, of the hours and the duties that bind us, make us more in common than apart. even looking down from clouds, when i fly from here to there, i spy the little towns, especially, and see the lights inside the itty-bitty boxes of the houses, and i wonder who’s inside, who’s stirring sauce at the stove, who’s just getting a phone call that will change everything, who’s all alone.

with the house next door, i didn’t have to imagine too, too much. i knew the players. had come to love the players. over time, you learn things, peel back the stories, allow the bond to build — the new year’s ladies lunch she always hosted; the time we went together to the tracks, put down dollar bills on the horse he assured would win; the day we moved here nearly 14 years ago when she came to the door with a tinfoil-domed platter of the best chocolate chip cookies anyone ate that day, and she looked me in the eye, said, “i think we’ve a lot in common,” and it would be awhile till i realized what she meant was that she, too, was irish catholic, married long ago to a brilliant jewish fellow; they’d trod this interfaith path long before i’d even met the man i would love and marry.

she told me, after years of back and forth at the invisible line that divides our yards out back, about the time her little brother ran in front of the car, and died. right before her eyes. she told me how she up and packed three boys, left behind the house she loved, and moved to england for a time, when her husband was a rising executive and the boss said, “move!”

over time, you learn the heart aches, divine the heroism, the everyday grit that muscles some of us forward, that some days topples others of us. over time, you come to count on the quiet rhythms from the house next door. you learn their ways. how, as soon as the air outside warms to, oh, 78, the air conditioners will begin to hum. and how, come sunday morning, the singer’s warmups will punctuate the chatter of the birds.

over time, their story seeps into yours. you’ve watched her boys come home on weekends to mow the lawn, you’ve watched them marry, and just last night you watched her youngest rock his newborn baby girl to sleep.

life passes while we’re watching. which is why it matters so very much to keep close watch. which is why the practice of paying attention brings riches — and countless wisdoms — to our soul. which is how and why we fall in love, day after day, with those who fill our hours with the hum of their every day.

when we’re watching closely, we get peeks at the human spirit exposed. even when it’s by simple accident of geography that we’re entwined through the light and shadow cast on all the passing hours. when what’s drawn us into each other’s close orbit is the single-digit difference in the address that we call home.

until the big van comes, and we’re left looking into darkness next door.

what are the quiet rhythms of your everyday that you’ve come to count on? who are the ones whose lives have slowly softly seeped into yours, by virtue of geography or habit, the ones whose lives you know through occasional encounters rather than uninterrupted unspoolings, whose presence over time adds up to someone you count on in your own quiet way? what peeks at heroism have you gleaned from those who pass you by on a regular basis? 

and mickey and alicia, we send you off with love. much love….

 

prodigal people

prodigal people

when your sweet boy is flying through night, is up in the clouds, winging his way to you, you can’t sleep too soundly. you toss and tumble, and peek open an eye to check on the clock.

you follow him, one flight to the next, berlin to amsterdam, amsterdam, home. 12:40, 2:40, 5:40….all in the ayems, of course. waiting, just waiting, for the scheduled landing at 2:10 p.m.

while he does his half of the task — sits strapped in the seat trying not to splatter his midnight breakfast — you do yours: you haul out the pots and the pans, you indulge in the making of prodigal feast.

there are apples to chop and to simmer. there is cinnamon to sprinkle in dashes. there’s that ol’ mac-‘n’-cheese, the one from page 200 of the may 1995 gourmet magazine, the one you first made when your firstborn turned two, and the one that — ever since — has been family shorthand for comfort hauled from the oven.

because your heart is thumping at john philip sousa proportions, you haul out the red “you are special today” plate. you run about the yard with your clippers, tucking hydrangea (the first of the summer) next to his bed (as if he’ll be awake enough to notice), plunging stems of rambling roses and catmint into an old cracked pitcher you’ve hauled out from hiding.

at last, you leap in the shiny black pick-up mobile (that’s pick-up as in boy from airport), and you note that it’s near out of gas. you make un-anticipated pit stop at nearest gasoline pump, then you motor on your way, arriving at said airport a good hour early. (but considering a week ago, you would have walked to germany to fetch the suffering child, this hour is nothing. and besides it gives you a chance to inhale the tears and the squeals and the long-lost embraces that come with the world’s second-busiest international terminal).

you stare so intently at the swinging double doors, the chute that spits out bleary-eyed, jet-lagged world travelers, you practically will your child to up and appear. as that first hour drags into the start of the second, you suddenly look up and there, curlier than ever, slump shouldered from all that he’s weathered since last you waved him goodbye, there is your sweet little boy, not yet a dozen years on this planet, and now bearing a much-stamped state-department-issued U.S. passport.

you cannot contain it. you yelp: “there he is!” as if everyone in the throng might care about your particular pronoun. and before you can note the collective raised eyebrows, you’ve leapt around the black sash that attempts to keep order there in the exiting-passenger chute.

so sweet is this holy reunion, your boy traveler doesn’t even flinch when you throw your arms tight round his shoulders and backpack. but the nice lady in the uniform does command you to move it along. so you do. and you stand there marveling at how gorgeous he is, how his soul feels like it’s deepened, it’s triumphed.

for it did triumph. that kid, who was sick for five days, who came to know far too many german toilettes, he found it deep within to muscle his way to the finish line. the line where, with your trembling hand squeezing his, he now stood.

you didn’t tarry, there in the airport. you shared hugs goodbye with two surrogate mamas (both of whom you’ll scribble onto your eternally-grateful list for the rest of your days), then you zipped to the car, began dialing essential persons — papa, big brother, anyone who happened to be breathlessly waiting by the phone for word of the traveler’s arrival.

and, at last, after 11 long months, and another two weeks plus a day, you brought the boy home to where he deeply, truly belongs.

he relished every step of the path to the door, through the overgrown greens and the weeds that threaten to cut you off at the knees. he called for his cat, the cat who leapt from the old wicker chair, and promptly rubbed fur against ankle.

he kerplumped into the couch. he soaked up the sights through his sleepiest eyes. then, halfway through mac ‘n’ cheese, he keeled over onto the bench by the old maple table. that’s when he begged for a bubbly bath, and his old old bed.

and that’s where i climbed in beside him, into the 100-year-old bed that once was my grandma’s. i curled my legs around his, and whispered a kite-string of prayer into his soft little ear. by the time i whispered the second “thank you, dear God,” he was off in that place where the dreams come, and he stayed there till six the next morning.

he’s still sleeping it off, all of it, but when he’s awake it’s utterly perfectly clear how he’s grown. deep down, deep inside where the stretching and growing unfolds, he’s a boy who’s mastered an obstacle course.

just two weeks ago he was sending home emails saying he couldn’t possibly make it, would not survive there in a faraway place, upchucking every few hours, alone in a house with few words of english. and we typed back a niagara falls of you-can-do-it declarations. it’s all we could do, since the state department isn’t so keen on issuing on-the-spot passports for mamas whose children are ailing from tummy flu.

there are times, i’ve discovered, when the wisest thing a mama can do is hold her breath, and believe. and pass on sparks of that faith — in whatever form she can send ’em — to a faraway child, who is out doing the hard work of childhood, discovering all the nooks and crannies of vigor and stamina nestled deep down inside. the figuring out that you’re stronger than you think you are. that you can do what you might have thought impossible.

and even when that mama’s heart is nearly skipping its beats, she’s giving that child the best she can give: the hard-won sense of mastery, sure-footed steadiness, that there is no mountain too steep for him to climb. that the summit is there, that lung-filling vista, for the kid who figures it out: put one hiking boot in front of the other, step, climb, step, steadying as you go. you’ll make it to the top. and, once there, you can always tuck that triumph snug in your pocket, for the next time you run into a climb up the sharp side of an incline.

***

one by one, my boys are trickling home. this old house is filling again, with the hums and the rhythms that make it purr. the blue-willow cookie plate, the one that shines from under the cake dome, it’s filled again. the fridge is stocked with milk in all percents — 0, 2 and 100-percent whole. the oven’s been cranked. the shower is steamy, is dripping.

there’s only one bed that’s un-stirred (so i plop the cat there to make it look used). and as much as i loved this old house all to myself, i discovered i love it more when it’s humming with people whose noises i know by heart.

my prodigal people are back. and i long for the missing one now more than ever, knowing we’ll not really be whole till he’s here.

i’m struck by a sense — sometimes softly, sometimes with a wallop — that it seems we’ve leapt a chapter or two since last we were huddled here at the old maple table.

i can almost hear the page that’s been turned, as the life of this family moves forward. and the sound of little feets on the floorboard, they’re fading. where’d the years go? oh, how i love this old house that remembers. that once knew the sounds of suckling, and little boy birthdays. and now is home to a world-traveler come home to catch up on sleep…..

post-script: i know. i said i would stay mum for awhile. but….well, i found a friday morning without typing a bit of an odd fit. and there were a few things that rumbled around this week, so tap-tap-tap, fingers to keyboard. i’ll try to rest easy in knowing that if you don’t care to click here, you certainly won’t. and i’ll console myself with the knowing that a writer needs to write if she cares to keep her verbs sharp and sharper, and i’ve teachers under my belt who admonish: daily, daily, you must do it daily. 

it’s a workday around here, as the professor is back to his life as a newspaper critic, and his first critique is spewing from the typewriter on deadline today. my world traveler is snoozing upstairs, and there’s a long day of writing ahead for me.

hope your fourth was lovely. and blanketed by a nightsky exploding with colors and sizzles and booms.

and now for a question: what were the chapters of your life that tested your deep-down i-can-do-it-ness? how’d you figure out that the best you could do was put one foot in front of the next, and sooner or later, you’d get where you needed, learning a few key lessons along the way?