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Category: new chapter

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?

home. amid a host of tugs and pulls and squeaks from far corners.

moving boxes...

dispatch from 60091 (in which, except for invasion of colonies of critters with matchstick-sized legs, i attempt to nest in solitude, with a few elephant-sized distractions…)

i’ve waited 18 months for this. to have unpacked the mountain of moving boxes. to have tiptoed room-to-room, inhaling the musty scent of home. to be tucked up against my old maple table, with the morning sun draped across the slabs. my old chipped coffee mug at the ready, inches from the keyboard.

i’ve waited for the tick and tock of our grandpa’s clock. to hear the morning song of birds, my birds, my flocks, rising up and rolling in from the jungle that is my overgrown garden. i’ve waited and waited.

to be home, and going nowhere.

alas, it hasn’t exactly been a week of lolligagging and tossing back bonbons in a tub of bubbles.

the night before i zipped the last of the home-bound suitcases, back in 02139, i got word — make that, news flash — from my hilarious friend who spent the year here holding down the fort. she’d ducked into the wee bathroom off my writing room (the old garage, long ago turned into maid’s quarters, how apt that i now dwell there…), and there, dozing atop a feather bed of nibbled toilet paper bits, a nice fat chipmunk. only it wasn’t sleeping. it was, um, dead. and had chosen a basket filled with toilet paper rolls to be his final resting place.

she spared me pix of the kerplunked critter, and instead sent me a dramatic close-up of just how adept chipmunks are at making bedclothes out of the tissue paper with a purpose.

i considered myself fair-warned.

which is why, once half across the country, once the cat, the boy, the three fat suitcases and i were greeted at the baggage depot by my fair mama and ferried home, i tiptoed with trepidation into that wee room. i scanned for paw prints, wee paw prints, everywhere a furry thing might scamper. i scanned, too, for the caraway-seed-sized deposits they always leave behind.

i found them.

abundantly.

piled high and thick atop the baby blankets i had so neatly folded and tucked into a basket back in the corner. must have seemed the perfect lullaby land for all the baby chipmunks (and judging from the pile, there was a bumper crop of baby chipmunks). i did not scream. i merely long-jumped from the room, slammed the door, and decided to deal with it in the morning.

long story, short: $500 later, my new best friend joe, the jesus-believing critter control apostle, arrived on the scene, armed with coyote urine, ammonia crystals and wheelbarrows of cement. not a poison to be found, bless his benevolent heart. just some serious deterrents for re-entry to the chipmunks’ underground metropolis, the one they dug in vast array beneath the concrete slab upon which the old garage was built.

that’s the story of the first-floor critters. upstairs, in all the drawers where soaps and cottonballs were stored (note the past tense), another branch of the Rodentia family (the ones with long skinny tails and appetite, apparently, for european scrubs) had made themselves quite at home. why, it was a veritable carnival of critters, all with matchstick legs and the itty-bittiest pit-a-pats the world has ever known. they’d run amok undetected for lord knows how many months. (they don’t exactly blow trumpets announcing their arrival.)

and, oh, they served as such a rousing welcome committee. (i was roused, all right!)

but all that, truly, fades in the narrative arc of this long week.

the heart of the matter is that one long dark night this week i sat alone in my long-awaited bed fielding phone calls from my firstborn who was spending the night in an ER 1,000 miles away, getting IV painkillers pumped into his veins (neck and head pains, all tied back to a broken neck in the eighth grade, when he somersaulted over his handlebars swerving from — get this — a chipmunk who’d dashed across his bike trail).

and that’s only the half of it. my little one, the brave one who boarded a plane to germany a mere 48 hours after whirling in the door, a trip he’d long awaited, a trip for which he’d spent the year studying with his german tutor, he’d gotten sick as a dog on the flight across the atlantic, and 24 hours after de-boarding the plane was still upchucking in his new german bathroom. i was getting emails from the teacher, updating me on just what shade of green he was sporting, hour by hour.

when you are 11, and 4,538 miles from home, and you’ve been tummy-rumbling in volcanic proportions for a good 36 hours, you really truly desperately deeply through-and-through want one of two things: a.) to catch the next plane home, or b.) to have your mama sky-dive from the clouds.

thus, you do what any thinking person would do: you pick up the phone, and dial in your request.

and your mother, on the far side of the globe, hearing the whimper in your voice, imagining just how wretched it must feel to have wretched straight across the ocean, she kicks into high mama gear: she drops to her knees, points eyes heavenward, and unfurls the litanies of prayer reserved for just such moments.

she smacks herself upside the head for letting such a little guy go in the first place. she calls on angels, saints, random trumpet players, anyone and anything who might come charging to the rescue, to barrel up the hill and storm the ramparts.

she tries everything she can humanly think of. she pounds out “this i believe” treatises, reminding the little fellow just how brave he is, and just how valiantly he has conquered a host of uphill battles: the sleepover on wrigley field, the two-week summer camp in the deep dark mosquito-infested woods of michigan, the whole dang city of cambridge, massachusetts. heck, he even weathered a whomping case of scarlet fever and pneumonia when he was just a wee young thing.

the boy can do it.

he is, i often remind him, the egg that wouldn’t take no for an answer. while all the other eggs could not make it out of the roundhouse and chug up the mountain, that little guy was the one egg who made the climb, who was born in a shaft of pure white light at 3:22 one hot august morning, to a mother who defied logic and medical tomes, clocking into the maternity ward at 44 years, eight months and five days old.

on the off-chance that my sweet boy is tucked under the puffy covers in munster, reading these words from glowing screen, i have five words and a comma for you: you can do it, sweetie.

i love you higher than the moon and wider than the oceans. you have angels, saints, mamas, papas, grandmas and grandpas, uncles, aunts and a big brother all pulling for you. we’ll make sure you are pumped up with dramamine for the swift ride home. and we’ll be waiting at the airport with double-time hearts and wide-open arms. we’ll pull you to our thumping hearts, and keep you home all summer. we’ll even ply you with fresh-squeezed lemonade and oatmeal-raisin cookies. we’ll let you stay up late and sleep till lunchtime, if that’s the way you like it. we’ll whip up a welcome home parade, and make you grand marshal and chief potentate. i won’t even make you pluck your dirty socks off the floor. (not for the first hour, anyway….)

you will have triumphed over the latest in your long litany of championship makers. you are some boy, you glorious sweet soul, you who always says, “yes! i want to see the world!”

it’s right before your eyes. take it in, sweetheart. then hurry home. so we can all chase chipmunks hither and yon and all around the garden, one big happy reunited family. home sweet home, at last. oh, sweet lord, at last.

so that’s the news from the homecoming committee. shoulda known that you can’t go away for 10 long months and not expect a bump or grind upon return. 

question of the week: what words of wisdom would you impart to a wee lad far from home, and weathering a whopper case of travel bugs…..

love letter to the boy who said “yes!”

love letter to the boy who said yes

dispatch from 02139 (in which the second-to-last cambridge edition of the chair is turned over to the art of love-letter writing…)

dear T,

so here we are — you, me and the fat cat — counting down the days till we stuff said kitty in strappy black bag, sling him over our shoulder and board the big jet plane. soon as we’re strapped in our seatbelts, mr. pilot will turn that plane’s big bulbous nose toward where the sun sets, toward corn fields and great lakes and skyscrapers rising from the prairie. we’ll lift off, you, me and screeching cat (and hope that the whir of the plane drowns out the primal howl rising up from row 32, down yonder under the depths of seat E).

knowing us, we’ll squeeze our fingers tight ’round each other’s as the plane does that hiccup-y burp from runway to sky. knowing us, one of us will swipe away tears, big mama tears. it’s been a long wild ride, sweet boy, and i’m riding home snuggled beside you so we can both soak it all in, gulp after gulp after bottomless gulp.

you’ve been the intrepid scout on this voyage, my friend, and before we go, i just want you to know — here, in little typed letters that you often read in the glow of your itty-bitty screen after bedtime lights are supposed to be dark — that you are the hero, the brave warrior, the tenderheart, to whom we owe this year of thinking and living so deeply sumptuously.

when daddy first discovered that beckoning email in his in-box, some 18 months ago, the one where the nice man asked if he might consider coming to cambridge, daddy wrote right back, said, “gosh, thanks, but we can’t. we’ve a fifth grader who would never in a million years let us wrench him from his cozy little life.”

daddy was wrong, wasn’t he?

that very night at dinner, when we put the question to you, “T, what would you think of up and moving smack-dab in the middle of middle school?” you didn’t blink. just blurted: “sounds great! i need to see the world!”

we asked again and again, from every imaginable angle, prying around to see if a NO was lurking somewhere deep down inside: what about soccer? what about baseball? what about going to cooperstown? what about your non-stop gaggle of friends?

bing, bing, and bing. you never batted an eye. the answer from you, always from you, is yes, yes and yes.

i am not kidding, not one little bit, when i tell you the truth that you were the egg who wouldn’t take no for an answer. after years and years of mama eggs that wouldn’t do as we hoped and we prayed, there suddenly — against all odds and despite every medical book on the shelves — sprang from within, one blessed holy egg that only knew YES as the way.

mister yes, you turned into teddy. love of our life. swell in our hearts.

and never more than this year, as you took on cambridge with arms opened wide. and cambridge responded — emphatically, resoundingly — in kind.

watching you these past 10 months, watching you weather a belly-ache of a storm of the homesick blues, but then rebound, and rebound and rebound, has been the sweetest sweet on a long list of delicious.

i’ll never forget you bravely standing at the bus stop that very first morning, backpack slung over your shoulders, headed off — all on your own — to a school where you knew utterly no one.

wasn’t long till we were inviting over your delectable friends. and this saturday night, the living room rug will be wall-to-wall sleeping bags. your last goodbye to your united nations of buddies.

but that’s not all:

when you’d had your heart set on cambridge basketball, you were sick as a dog for 10 days on either side of the tryouts. once the fever was doused, you dragged yourself off the couch, tried out at the Y and played street ball straight through the blizzards of winter. wasn’t plan A in your playbook, but that didn’t bench you. you gave it your all; even twisted your ankle.

ditto, baseball — when you found out there were no spots in the big league, as cambridge baseball recruits early and often and doesn’t leave empty slots on the roster. again, you weathered your drooped heart, and forged on anyway. then, out of the blue, a coach up and called, and now you’re a brave. two, three nights a week, you’re out on the sandlot, under the lights, cracking the bat, snagging at line drives soaring straight at you. how fitting, my friend, that you’re number 1 — at least according to the fat white digit slapped on the back of your jersey. once again, you’re a walking-talking tale of determination, of not giving up when the cards are against you.

but it’s not just the hoops down by the river (where you play pickup with grad students from around the globe), not just the afterschool gym (where you’re the scrappy little white kid out with players who tower above you, who’ve taught you a jive and even a hustle).

i’ll not forget the afternoon you practically climbed on my lap to get an up-close read of our south african friend’s newspaper tale of the 1,841 steps it takes to fetch a bucket of water, two times a day, in the highlands bordering lesotho. or listening to our feminist muslim reporter friend tell her tales of marriage proposals from taliban chiefs, when she’s out in their tents gathering front-line stories. or our truth-teller friend from vietnam predicting he’ll be thrown in prison once he steps back into his homeland, the price of not spewing fiction; but he flies home anyway.

our prayer, daddy’s and mine, is that this year forever opens not only your eyes, but even wider your very big heart.

we want you to know, more than anything, that this is a world where even a drink of water comes with a heck of a toll in some corners of the world. we want you to think twice — or three or four times, at least — about how blessed you are that you had the two quarters — one for yourself, one for your very best friend who had none — when hot chocolate was served in the school cafeteria. we want you to remember the courts where the only shared language is the one bound inside the orange ball that soars through the hoops.

i know you’re ready to fly chicago way, to be back in your squishy red bean bag, to pedal your bike cambridge-style, any and everywhere. i know, too, that leaving these friends is not easy. that, if you could, you’d be a boy of two ZIP codes.

i’m mighty glad that i’ll have a front-row seat, at least for the next few years, on the unfolding of this year’s lessons deep in your heart. i’ve had my own sweet spots here. and daddy, we know, is filled to the brim.

more than anything, it’s all thanks to you, mister yes.

bless you mightily and always. yes, yes, and oh yes.

xox

we’re awash in moving boxes here in the aerie. we’ve just had a visit from new jersey grandma and grandpa; thank goodness they got here in the nick of time and we shared a few spectacular moments. before we dash, we’ve one last round with our beloveds from maine, who are planning to motor down on sunday. i’m barely able to sleep so excited am i to get back in my very own bed, and my creaky old house (where the hot water tap in the kitchen has decided to go kerpluey, but our trusty friend back home is deep on the case)…..there are folks here it breaks my heart to leave, but i’ll be back, i promise, 02139. one more post from the cobbled city, then it’s home to 60091… 

who in your life taught you the beauty of YES?

 

welcome: making our way into the landscape of white

here is where the white begins.

white is quiet. white whispers. white welcomes you into its folds.

white is lace handkerchief tucked in my grandma’s pocket. white is pure cotton sheets, drying on the line where the sunshine and breeze do all the work.

white is the garden that gertrude jekyll dreamed of, that she planted, and wrote of, in her 1899 tome, “wood and garden: notes and thoughts, practical and critical, of a working amateur.” (oh, that we should be such amateurs.)

“snow-white,” she wrote, “is very vague. there is so much blue from it’s crystalline surface.”

as she traipses through her victorian beds, her riotous plantings that broke out of the corseted ways of the times, dear gertrude notices all of the many, many shades of white: there is milk-white, and lemon white, and, yes, at last there is clear white.

there are first snowdrops poking through late winter’s crust, banners of hope, periscopes from the underworld, looking out to see if it’s safe yet. might it be time to tiptoe onto the landscape, they ask. they dare ask.

and so we, too, come to this landscape of pure cotton sheets, of gardenia petals, of damask dinner napkins lifted out from the mothballs. of the pages of old, favorite books. of snow as it falls.

here we are, in this new place, where soon enough we will settle in, will feel like old home.

oh, sure it might take some getting used to. but i’m beginning to think of the beauties of the unfettered slate. of the wash just after its folded, when the smoothed-out wrinkles wear proudly their scrubbed-up whiteness. as far back as i know, white has been the color of choice for the papers on which ink spills. at least when the mission is words. inky black on parchment white.

we’ll give it a whirl.

and before i leave this welcome postcard, i’ve brought along poet mary oliver, who i trusted would have had something to say about white.

indeed.

White Flowers

by Mary Oliver

Last night
in the fields
I lay down in the darkness
to think about death,
but instead I fell asleep,
as if in a vast and sloping room
filled with those white flowers
that open all summer,
sticky and untidy,
in the warm fields.
When I woke
the morning light was just slipping
in front of the stars,
and I was covered
with blossoms.
I don’t know
how it happened—
I don’t know
if my body went diving down
under the sugary vines
in some sleep-sharpened affinity
with the depths, or whether
that green energy
rose like a wave
and curled over me, claiming me
in its husky arms.
I pushed them away, but I didn’t rise.
Never in my life had I felt so plush,
or so slippery,
or so resplendently empty.
Never in my life
had I felt myself so near
that porous line
where my own body was done with
and the roots and the stems and the flowers
began.

please, let me know if you’re warming to white….

“…fasten your seat belts…”

for nearly 19 years (i’m certain i started to wonder nearly the moment i found i was pregnant) i have wondered what this day — this very day when we will lock the house one last time, lug bags down the walk, climb in the car, head off to college — i have tried high and low to figure out what it would feel like. to, um, send my firstborn, my lifeblood, my sweetboy, to college.

this is how it feels:

i awoke at 3 in the morning, just lay there, felt a pain in my chest. for once, though, didn’t think it meant i was having a heart attack. i knew what it was. the beginning of yet another labor. no water bag broke. no squeeze around the middle, from upside the legs. but it is labor nonetheless.

next came the hollowness. hollow. hollow. hollow. that’s how my insides felt.

wasn’t long till i tossed my pillow to the ground, climbed out and knelt there. (a girl needs a kneeler at this ripe ol’ age.)

i whispered every benediction, blessing and vesper i could muster, and a few i couldn’t even put to words.

then i got up. ambled straight to the college-bound bedroom, kissed the forehead i found lying there asleep. made a sign of the cross with my thumb, just the way the bishops taught me to do it long, long ago. that boy fluttered open his eyes, “hullo mommy,” he said, smiling, most likely seeing my tears.

for there were tears.

and there will be more.

right now, though, i find i have a long enough list of things that need to be done.

minutes ago, i was called to the college-bound bedroom. a packing crisis was underway, and the boy asked if instead of typing about his going away, i might just give him a hand. a real one. so i got with the program, and helped the boy re-pack a suitcase of breakable things he thinks he’ll just bring on the plane.

too late for a little mini-lesson on why that’s not so wise.

we’ll just add that to the long list of prayers: “dear God, don’t let the tea mugs and the laptop stand and the book ends bang up and shatter into a zillion pieces, not even when they get crushed by the 23 books the boy decided he can’t leave behind.” (never mind the 42 he already sent in a box.)

i’m not sure, though, if i really want that sorry short prayer taking up space on my God list today.

i might bump it off for one of the others.

like, this one:

“dear God, i noticed on the hurricane watch map, how you’ve plotted a course for that oversized whirling dervish now known as IRENE, and i saw how you’ve got the eye of that ’cane, pencilled right over the wee little town where my boy’s going to college. now, God, i don’t think you pull out this trick very often, the one where the hurricane ditches the seashore, heads inland 100 or so miles, straight through the holyoke mountains. so, God, i was wondering if maybe you’d pull out your big pink eraser, and re-do that line, the hurricane-eye line. i really don’t think it belongs over the college dorm where we will be busy ditching raindrops and hurling branches. because, God, in all of my hours of wondering about sending my kid off to college, i never once dreamed up a hurricane. never ever thought that was something i oughta add to my worries. but here you go, God, trumpin’ me in the creativity department. big time. so i’m just askin’, if you’ve got time today, could you please re-do your hurricane map. or maybe just turn it into a frog. a frog would be fine, God. a nice fat frog hopping around college. just asking. you do what you want. me, i’ve got to get back to packin’ my boy for college.”

and so, that big fat prayer now outa the way, i should move on to trembling. for that’s what it feels like inside when your motor is revving, and your nerves are all jangled. because you really don’t get it, don’t get how for 18 whole years your every night and every day is consumed with watch-keeping.

you watched that baby boy breathing, so long ago. made sure you saw the up and down of his chest when, in those rare moments, he took a long afternoon’s nap. why, you were making sure he was alive right there beside you. for you never, not once, put him down in a crib. you were the kind of mama who LIKED having a babe in your arms most of the time, who slept right beside him, who woke up in the night just to drink in the miracle of skin against skin. (no wonder this leave-taking is hard, you poor old mama, it’s wholly against every cell of your wiring.)

not so many years after that, you kept watch whenever you drove in a car, and you could glance in the rear-view mirror, gauge his mood, how his day went. you’ve been tossing an eyeball his way since as long as you could remember.

and now, no matter how hard you try, no matter what sort of magical spectacles you slip on your face, you won’t see what he’s doing, where he is, what sort of smile he wears, or how much his eyes sparkle.

oh, you’ll imagine. and maybe, if you’re lucky, you’ll dream. you’ll see him bouncing around in your dreams. i know what it is to fall asleep hoping you dream about someone you miss. i did it for years, hoping to dream of my papa.

right now though, i need to imagine him strong and safe and thriving. i need to picture him in his glory hallelujah. the boy is headed straight to where he belongs (minus the hurricane).

i suspect i’ll ride the waves of this labor all weekend long. till the final push. when someone tells me it’s time. time to go now. time to look straight in his eyes one last time, time to open my heart for one last gulp of pure holy child.
i will whisper these words: “be safe. and soar on the winds. God be with you. know that i love you.”

and like that, i will wrench myself away. turn to the little one who will be sobbing by then. i will walk away from one child, hold tight to the other.

for now, though, there’s a long day of packing. and loving. and loving. and boarding a plane, straight for the path of the hurricane.

this is bound to be a drop-off for the record books.

irene, here we come.

fasten your seat belts…..

the photo up above was taken last night, the last night willie slept in this house before college. his little brother wanted him to climb in bed and read him a story. they picked dr. seuss’ “the butter battle book.” i listened in from the stairs, heard willie tell teddy, “i love you very much.” this morning there was a 5-minute hug in the hall. this parting is downright painful for the little one. if you’ve got a spare prayer, whisper one for him.

and there we go: i decided to write my way through this passage, the college send-off. and so i did. bless you for indulging me. and thank you for your patience. i know i am not the first to do this, nor the last. but in my book, it’s all new, it’s all raw, and it begged to be put on paper. so that’s what i did. i’m sure i’ll write at least once about the quiet that comes once we’re home.

for now, thank you, and bless you, all of you who come to this table, and sop up these stories and tears when they’re spilled. i would love to hear the tales of your heart-achingest partings, however they unfolded, whenever they came…

roots and wings, unedited

for seven sweet days, we escaped.

i though had my heart set on one thing: savoring the days, the hours, the minutes. every drop of it. i licked my lips of it, let it drip down my chin. didn’t care a whit if it stained the front of my shirt, so sweet was the one last chance to slip away, to stay at the little mirror lake where we have spent sweet summer weeks in the past.

at week’s end, as we locked up the house and pointed the car south, toward home, my firstborn said quietly: “this is my last time coming home.”

what he meant, of course, was this was the last time the homecoming would be back to the place where he’s grown up, where he’s spent his years since the middle of fourth grade, the place that soon won’t be the epicenter of his daily whirl.

while we were motoring home yesterday, the chicago tribune, that newspaper where i type, was running an essay they’d asked me to write, about taking my firstborn to college.

because there is never enough room on the printed page, it had to be trimmed at the last minute. but i never have to trim here, not if i don’t want to. and this time i don’t.

and besides, plenty of you don’t read the tribune, don’t have it slap on your front stoop, come sunday mornings. so for all of you, and for the record, here is the unedited version of “roots and wings,” an essay that ran in the chicago tribune of sunday, august 7, 2011, less than three weeks before my firstborn shipped east for college…..

By Barbara Mahany

I’ve been practicing for months. Practicing what it will be like when, in a few weeks, my firstborn is packed up, flown off and settled into a dorm on a campus on a hill in a town some 1,000 miles from the old house where his stirrings have been the backbeat to my every day.

Just to see what it feels like, I find myself walking past the bedroom that’s hard off the landing on the way up the stairs. I peek in, see the bedclothes unrumpled, just the way he left them.

Sometimes, if I’m drawn in, I take a few steps beyond the door, look around, breathe deep of what it will be like — when the piles on the desk no longer teeter, when the soggy towels aren’t plopped on the floor, when, for months at a time, there’s no trace of him in our midst.

My firstborn, at last, is headed off to college.

And while, for the life of me, I cannot picture this place without him, I know deep down that the whole point of this exercise called parenting is this soon-to-come parting, no matter how hard.

While I might be practicing this new long-distance mothering — imagining what it’ll be like to not see the light shining from under his door at 3 in the morning, to not hear his books thump on the counter when he lopes into the house, to not wake at 5 to stir his oatmeal and send him off with a hug and a kiss — and while I can’t even begin to imagine how it will feel to look into his eyes one last time and walk away there on that leafy New England college quad, I do know that the real work started long ago — and for that there was no practice, only sheer trial by error and hope.

Day after day, hour by hour, bump after bump, for the last 18-plus years, I’ve been getting him ready for this great divide.

I was cradling that lanky baby in my arms, back in our city garden one hot Sunday afternoon, when a wise friend of ours, a priest actually, stood in front of a circle of people we love and told my husband and me that we had but one essential job: Give that child roots and wings.

Roots, so he is forever grounded, solid, deep. Wings, so that some day the wind will catch beneath him, and he will soar.

Roots, I’ve come to learn, are laid down slowly. They’re laid down late at night in kitchens, when the tears come, and the stories from the playground are enough to break your heart, but you stand there like a sponge, taking it all in, soaking up every drop of the hurt, whispering words of unswerving faith.

They’re laid down on long walks where you listen to the boy spill his dreams, and you let out his kite string; you say you believe, and you mean it.

They’re laid down after school at the kitchen counter, when you open wide the refrigerator and let him have at it, while you sop up the dramas of the day, you listen to the questions and the quandaries, and you offer up the scant teaspoons of wisdom you have to offer.

They’re laid down so when you get to this summer — the summer when your kid packs up the boxes, leaves home, steps into the college life of which he’s dreamed, for which he is so very hungry — you can stand back and watch what happens.

What you hope, what you pray for, is that while you’ve been hard at work cultivating those roots, the wings, undetected, began to unfurl.

Oh, sure, you’ve seen starter flights. The road trip in a car packed with 18-year-olds where you stayed home and held your breath. The lightning storm that hit when your kid was out on a boat in a river, and somehow he made it back to shore and stay alive, holed up — in defiance of science and common sense — in a metal boxcar used as a boathouse.

But, so far, the nest he has flown home to was yours, the one you’ve watched with vigilant eyes.

From here on in, the wings and the flights are all his.

–chicago tribune, 2011

so that’s my meander for the week, sorry it’s coming to you a few days later than usual. but i am delighted to type today’s date into the meander box: today is a date i love. it’s my little one’s birthday. and his first foray into the land of double digits. he turned 10 today, my little one. and while his brother gets to work on all those winged expeditions that are on his agenda, the little one’s still home where we can spend plenty of days ahead setting down those deep-set roots. happy birthday little T. we love you madly. xoxoxox

p.s. the photo above is an old-fashioned bowling alley, maybe the oldest in america, that we discovered on our little week away on mackinac island. my boys in silhouette. i love the way the light plays off the monticello blue walls…..