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Category: wonder

the day we decided to hatch an egg

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alleys are not where you want to drop your egg. alleys, being back-of-the-way ribbons of potholed pavement, are where kids learn to ride bikes, where cars and pickup trucks rumble along, where trash is dumped into cans (except when the wind blows, and the trash up and escapes from the cans, tuck-pointing the backways in detritus). alleys, too, are the connective tissue between one block and the next. in our alley, we have the occasional gathering. we swap tales of tomatoes. we chase runaway cats and fluffy dogs. we’ve even had summer theatre, right there in the alley.

truth is, the alley is very much a place of everyday business.

and so it was, as i was ambling down the alley the other day, to catch up on neighborhood news, when down i glanced and saw what at first looked like a mushroom. a mushroom sprouted right there on the dark gray asphalt. how very odd. what a curious mushroom. thank goodness, my first impulse wasn’t to kick, but rather to squat and inspect.

the mushroom, i soon realized, was something i’d never before held in my hand. ever. it was a wee tiny egg, a bird’s egg. not cracked, not one little bit. (an astonishing fact, considering it had plopped from the sky to the hard plane of the alley.) it was perfect and whole and, by the relative weight of it, enfolding the start of a little bird life.

right away i looked up, scanned the limbs and the heavens. figured a mama bird must be searching high and low for that egg, that egg i had suddenly, unsuspectingly, come upon. the egg that — i swiftly decided — now depended on me. like that, i scooped up the orb, all spotted with paint dabs of earthy brown. i marveled at the backwash of palest blue, a blue i quickly decided only God would have in God’s paint pot.

and then i ran, cradling that shell that harbored a wee little life. i ran and did what i do whenever there’s a nature emergency: i dialed the original mother nature, my very own mama.

days later, and i am still chuckling about the first words that spilled and the instructions that followed. in the annals of my mama’s story, there will be long litanies of these tales, the times she all but insisted we make like a mama rabbit/bird/squirrel and save the poor darlings. get up through the night. find a small dropper. lay rags in a shoebox, make it all soft.

and so it was with this latest dropping from heaven.

her instruction unfurled without pause. it went nearly verbatim like this: “you’ll have to pretend you’re mama bird. make a nest. get something soft, a rag, a towel, an old shirt. go outside and get some grass. oh! this is exciting! get a lightbulb. it’ll need to stay warm. oh, but will we be able to feed it once it hatches? but, oh, just to watch it happen!”

while i whirled about the house, grabbing soft rags, dispatching the boys to fetch grass by the fistful, my mama got to work identifying said egg. at first, she suspected a brown-headed cowbird. “they don’t build nests,” she informed, “they drop their egg in someone else’s nest.” or in the alley, apparently. then, she revised her hypothesis. decided it was probably a sweet little house finch, as i have droves of those flitting about my yard.

220px-Horton_hatches_the_eggand that’s when the kid who’s 6-foot-3 wondered aloud if he should make like horton, the elephant of dr. seuss fame who faithfully hatches an egg. the elephant tricked into incubatory role when mayzie the mama bird flits off to palm beach, leaving behind a tree-top orphan. horton the elephant who famously intones: “i meant what i said, and i said what i meant. an elephant’s faithful, one hundred per cent!”

alas, we can’t claim 100-percent faithfulness at our house (nor did my firstborn decide to squat on the egg), i am chagrined to admit. we stuck with it for awhile, an admirable while. but then, night fell, and with it, shadow. we couldn’t figure out how to rig up a bulb, without frying said egg, so we’d been skootching the egg, and its makeshift nest, from sun spot to sun spot. i felt my heart drop, more than a wee little bit, when i finally surrendered. when i realized i’d not be the adopted house-finch mama.

and while i now have a beautiful breathtaking wonder tucked on my nature tableau, i also have this: one more lesson from mama nature, the very one who birthed me. the one who all my life has been trying to teach this one holy truth: be vigilant. be undaunted. be the caretaker of wonder. it’s all around. and every once in a while God will tap you on the heart, and ask you to be its midwife.

midwife of wonder, one blessed calling.

what are your favorite tales of times you heeded the call, to be midwife, co-pilot, first lieutenant of wonder? 

wishes for christmas

wishes for christmas

ever since i was little, ever since i’d scurry to bed and begin my nightly imagining, ever since i pretended i lived in my little old log house, the one tucked in the trees i pretended were woods, ever since i pretended i was a little girl growing up on a prairie, and my upturned coffee can was a cookstove, and weeds from the ditch were hay for my cow — my make-believe cow, of course — i’ve been rather accomplished in the department of make-believe.

and so, this particular interlude of days, the ones tucked right before christmas, they’re particularly fine for a girl of make-believe inclinations.

these are the days when you curl in an armchair, when you burrow under the thickest of blankets, when you drink in the crackle and pop of the logs on the hearth (“hearth” is a word a make-believe girl believes in, rather than the more pedestrian “fireplace,” which doesn’t hold nearly as much storybook punch, nor poetry).

once the snowflakes tumble, and the steam rises from the mug of hot coffee, well, you are in heaven on earth if you’re a make-believe girl. the magic swirls all around you.

so what you do is you grab your nearest writing device — the seasonally- charged red pen will do. and you start to unfurl your wonder list, your list of wishes for christmas.

if you’re me, and your heart holds more weight than your piggy bank ever will hold, you scribble yourself into a trance, making believe you could make wishes come true, and counting as high as you possibly can, listing the wishes you wish for.

1. i wish i had a star anise tree outside my kitchen window. i’d have harvested a bumper crop of the nose-tingling intoxicant i’ve been sizzling away in the banged-up pot on the stove. it’s my december’s indulgence.

2. i wish i’d thought to save cute little jars all year long so that now, when i’m wishing i could deliver wagon loads of christmas-y cheer to each and every glowing house near and far, i’d have just the right vessel to fill with star anise (see no. 1), and cinnamon sticks, and orange peel and cloves. i’m pretty much a failure in the martha-stewart department, so i make up for it by pretending i could do these cute little things.

3. i wish i could give my lumbering mailman, the poor fellow who slogs through whatever the weather gods rain down on him — sweltering heat, piles of snow, cats-and-dogs precipitation — i wish i could hand him a desk job. for at least a few days. or a shiny gold coin, because those stories in the news pages always make me all misty-eyed, when the unsuspecting soul reaches into her pocket and pulls out a wee disc of gold bullion.

4. i wish sometimes that my words had magical powers, and that whenever we spoke, our words were heard in the very way we intended. there’s no more heart-shattering moment than realizing what you thought you said, what you meant, was not heard that way at all.

5. i wish people who say mean things would stop for a minute and imagine how those words are going to feel when they pierce someone’s heart like a poisonous arrow.

6. i wish i could bundle up all the weight bearing down on my firstborn’s shoulders, and deliver him soundly and safely to the 13th of january — the day after his senior thesis is due, all 80 pages.

7. i wish i could make the tumors in my dear friend’s lungs please, please, go away.

8. i wish i could tiptoe just outside the kitchen door of all the wonder-souls who’ve been so deeply kind to me these past few weeks, as i wobbled and tried to be brave, as my wee little book took to the world. i wish i could string a hundred thousand lights in each someone’s back yard, in the shape of a giant blinking red heart, and, writing in long strands of itty-bitty bulbs, spell out how much their kindness, their faith, their “you got this!” has meant to my chest-bursting heart.

9. i wish i could wipe away the heartache in everyone i love, especially the very dear friend who’s facing this very first christmas without her beloved.

10. i wish my sister-in-law, the one in far-off maine, lived down the lane. i wish my family room floor was the place where her two little munchkins unwrapped their christmas-y mischief. and that the mug she liked best was ever perched just by the teas, so whenever she flung open the door, she knew i had time to pull up a chair, to discover the joys and the occasional troubles that pound in her heart.

11. i wish i could wish all day. i wish i could make these wishes come true.

12. i wish most of all that every dear and tender heart who stops here, who takes the time to pull up a chair, and drink in a few lines, i wish each and every one of you the great gift of imagining a more blessed way to live and breathe.

maybe, just maybe, if we all make a wish, if we all make a promise to pick just one random act of whimsy or kindness, if we pray hard for the impossible to melt into possible, we’ll all find an extra dollop of magic as we tiptoe ever so quietly toward christmas.

and, by the way, merry merry. may your days be dusted with heart-hoisting joys, and may the quiet of christmas settle in deep in the nooks and the crannies where the blessed is born.

what do you wish for this christmas?

every morning’s wonder: ululations at dawn

ululations at dawn

it all started because of the cat. the noisy cat who pays no mind to numbers on clocks. the cat who thinks zip of unzipping a yowl at 4:49 in the morning. he had an itch, it would appear, to wend his way down the stairs and into the murky haze of the dawn. and so he let it be known.

which is where i come in.

one quick glance at the glaring red digits, a flip back of the soft summer bed sheet, and before i knew it, my feet hit the floorboards and padded straight toward the light and the door and the dawn.

wasn’t long — no more than the time it takes for one brain wave to leap across the synaptic gulch that comprises the wiring of the waking-up human — till i noticed how noisy it was. all around. coming from every nook and cranny of the great beyond.

it was the ululations of the dawn, and it knocked me upside the head, the wonder of birdsong at its thickest, in that one short interlude when first light is licking the sky, and most of the world — or at least the folks in my neck of the woods — are fast asleep, just beginning to crank up the dreams in that pre-alarm-clock revving of REM, the rapid-eye-movement cycle of slumber when visions are spun, and spun wildly.

there would be no REM for me this day. i blundered into something far more mesmerizing.

i followed the cat straight out the door, me and my flimsy old nightshirt. and there i stood, drinking it in. or trying to anyway. truth is, i could barely swallow a drop of it. i just let is wash over and over me. a blur of glorious sound: cheeps and warbles and trills. vowels banging hard up against consonant blends. (i’m certain audiologists have names for these audio bit-lets, but i call them simply the wonder of dawn measured in decibels.)

i tried, hard as i could, to pick it apart. to pluck one note from one bird that i knew: the cardinal’s cheer-cheer-cheer, the rise and the fall of the wren’s blessed warble. but mostly i just marveled, drank in the whole.

wasn’t long before i imagined the whole of them — the flocks and flocks who must have been darting among the summer’s greenery, or perched at the ends of boughs, filling the dawn with their music — in classic morning silhouette: standing before the bathroom mirror, faces creased from a long night’s slumber, eyelids still at half-mast, warbling away at the dawn. as humans have been known to do as they run the tap, await warm water for the day’s first splash. smear the squiggle of toothpaste clear across the toothy bristles. only i pictured zillions of birds frothing away at the morning sink, clearing their throats, unfurling their dawn song (minus the toothpaste).

that made me laugh. but then i got curious. so, once the groundswell of sound slowed to a trickle (and it didn’t last long, this ephemeral chorus, which only makes it all the more urgent), i pulled a few books off my shelves, and turned a few pages, studying the birdsong of dawn and why it’s so very raucous.

here’s a bit of the wonder that i discovered:

birds do their warbling because their little sound box, called a syrinx, isn’t placed up high in the throat, as is a human’s. rather, their syrinx is down low in the airway, at the juncture of the two bronchi, or tubes that funnel air into and out of the lungs. there, it allows the birds not one but two sources of sound, the air flowing in and out of each of their little bird lungs. and the membranes of each bronchus — think strings of the violin, or holes in a flute — allow separate sounds to be made.

and perhaps you’ve wondered how it is that the wren can yodel for minutes on end without keeling off her branch from sheer lack of oxygen? well, she and all her avian choristers have mastered the art of the mini-breath, each one timed between notes. so you can’t tell she’s filling her lung-lets, but in fact she is.

the burning question for me was this: why are the birds at their operatic noisiest at dawn, and only dawn?

the answer, one of those ones that melts me off my chair, and gives rise to goosebumps at the thought of the Brilliance who dreamed this all up: the birds sing at dawn because it’s when sound travels best. scientists who measure these things determined that sound at the dawn is 20 times as effective as midday sound, when the cacophony of life makes for stiff aural competition.

reason no. 2: other than belting out their tunes, there’s not much else for birds to do at dawn, according to ornithologists who ponder these things too. light intensity is low, so it’s a bit of a chore for a bird to forage for breakfast. because night temperatures drop, the insects — aka breakfast — are hunkered down on the ground, amid the relative warmth of grasses and dirt, and not yet available for plucking. so why not sing a morning tune? let the neighbor birds know you’ve made it through the night, and just might be available for a little daybreak dalliance, if you know what i mean…..(insert bird wink here).

it gets better: birds adapt their songs to whatever will travel best in their native habitat. so, the birds of the forest, where trees are thick and sound bounces off leaves, go for short bursts of aural punctuation. birds of the great plains opt for a buzz that clears across the wide-open canvas of wheat fields and pastures. and if a bird calls home some place near rushing waters, it will dial up its frequency to be heard above the aqueous roar.

before we wend to a close, consider this magnificent passage from british nature writer gareth huw davies, for sir david attenborough’s PBS series, “the life of birds”:

The vocal ability of birds has inspired poets and musicians, from Chaucer to Wordsworth, from Handel to Respighi. Birdsong can be a natural phenomenon of intense beauty. But our enjoyment is incidental to the main purpose, which is one bird communicating with others. Birds became the world’s master musicians in order to convey to potential mates, rivals and predators all the important things they have to say, from “Clear off!” to “Come on!”

And their songs have been shaped by their environment, just as the rap musician of New York delivers a different “tune” to the yodeller in the Swiss mountains. The musical detail would have impressed the great composers. The nightingale, for example, holds up to 300 different love songs in his repertoire. The canary may take 30 mini-breaths a second to replenish its air supply. The cowbird uses 40 different notes, some so high we can’t hear them. The chaffinch may sing his song half a million times in a season.

Indeed, British musician David Hindley slowed bird song down and discovered parallels between the skylark’s blizzard of notes and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony; between the woodlark’s mind-numbingly complex song and J.S.Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues. It changes its tune according to the rules of classical sonata form.

by 5:15, a far-too-brief 26 minutes after i’d stumbled into it, the bird sonata had quelled, and in rolled the soundtrack of civilization — the cars rumbling, trains bellowing, and far too soon, the early-bird lawn mowers coughing and spewing and disturbing the peace.

i miss the morning song already. but i’m betting on my wide-eyed cat to wake me on the morrow, so once again i’ll launch my sunlit hours on the wings of the glorious chorus of daybreak.

however sleepy i’ll be for the rest of the day, it’s so deeply worth it.

if you, too, are curious about birdsong, take a peek at this fine primer. or this guide to north american songbirds, with marvelous lists of birds based on whether they sing one or two or three notes.

and do consider shuffling out of doors at dawn to see what you might hear. know that you won’t be alone. me and my nightshirt will be there too. 

and how do you launch your day with your daily dose of wonder?

when wonder comes for christmas

By Barbara Mahany, Tribune Newspapers

When at last the morning comes, I am not unlike the little child at Christmas. Having tossed and turned in anticipation, through all the darkest hours, at first light I throw back the blankets, slide into clogs, slither into a heavy sweater and tiptoe down the stairs.

For days, I’ve been stockpiling for my friends. I’ve corncakes stuffed with cranberries and pine cones wrapped in peanut butter. I’ve suet balls to dangle from the boughs, and little bags of birdseed, just small enough to stuff in all my pockets. I’ve a jug of fresh water for all to drink and splash before it turns to winter’s ice.

It’s time for a Christmas treasure all my own, one I unwrap every year.

My walk of wonder takes me no farther than the patch of earth I call my own, a rather unassuming tangle of hope and dreams and heartache (for what garden doesn’t crack a heart, at least once a season?), in my leafy little village.

I carve out this hour of Christmas morn, before the footsteps slap across the floorboards up the stairs, before I crank the stove, and kindle all the Christmas lights.

It’s my hour of solitude and near silence, as I tug open the back door and step into the black-blue darkness of the minutes just beyond the dawn.

It’s my chance to take in the winter gifts of my rambling, oft-rambunctious garden plots, and all who dwell among them — the birds, the squirrels and fat-cheeked chipmunks, the old mama possum, and, yes, the stinky skunk who sometimes ambles by and sends us dashing in all directions.

And, best of all, it’s my early Christmas moment to reciprocate the many gifts that all the seasons bring me.

I am nearly humming as I make my yuletide rounds: I fill the feeders, scatter seed and stuff an old stone trough with what I call the “critter Christmas cakes.”

At this scant hour, the black-velvet dome above is stitched still with silver threads of sparkling light. And limbs of trees, bare naked in December, don’t block my upward glance at all that heavens offer.

This is where my prayer begins, as I whisper thanks for all the chirps and song, for flapping wings and little paws that scamper — all of nature’s pulse beats that bring endless joy, and teach eternal lessons.

As light brightens in the southeast corner of the sky, the architecture of the wintry bower emerges. The black of branches — some gnarled, others not unlike the bristles of an upturned broom — etch sharp against the ever-bluer sky.

Exposed, the silhouette reveals the secrets of the trees — the oak, the maple and the honey locust that rustles up against my bedroom window.

As I come ’round a bend, gaze up and all around, I cannot miss the nests not seen till late in autumn, when the trees disrobed and shook off their blazing colors.

In murky morning light, the nests appear as inkblots of black among the lacy boughs. Only in winter do we realize how many dot the arbor. There is the contour of the squirrels’ shoddy leaf-upholstered hovel high up in the maple, and, down low in a serviceberry, the robins’ tuck-point masterpiece of twigs.

While in robust and leafy times, the trees did not let on, but in winter’s stripped-down state there’s no hiding the part they play in watching over the nursery, shielding barely feathered broods and not-yet-furry baby squirrels from wind and sleet and pounding rains. Or even too much sun.

This cold morning, all is still. Every nest is empty, every bird house hollow once again. Where the winter birds cower, where they huddle, close their eyes and doze, I cannot figure out. Somewhere, even at this illuminating hour, they’re tucked away in slumber.

It won’t be long till the stirrings come, but for now the only sound is the scritch-scratch of brambles and left-behind leaves as they brush against my legs. I make my way among them, along a bluestone path, past all the shriveled blooms of not-forgotten summer.

The moppy heads of hydrangea, now dried and crisped to brown, are bowed but not surrendered, still clinging, even in the cold. And all that’s left of all the roses are persimmon-colored full-to-bursting hips, a final exhortation, punctuation on the winter page.

By the time the Big Dipper fades from the morning sky, that early riser, papa cardinal, ignites the winterscape with his scarlet coat. Soon follows the red-bellied woodpecker, a nuthatch or two, and, not long after, the choristers of dun-robed sparrows, all a-chatter with Christmas morning news.

I take cover back behind a fir tree, where the crowd at the feeder pays no mind. And where in winter storms, I find the flocks, too, take shelter, the only branches left that promise shield and a place to hunker down. For anyone who wants to hide — too often it’s the hungry hawk — these piney limbs are plenty thick.

Then I get brazen, and toss a handful of peanuts to the bristle-tailed squirrels. These are mere hors d’oeuvres, of course, for that trough now spills with Dickensian plenty — among the larder, bumpy apples no one wanted, and pumpkins plucked from the after-Thanksgiving discount bin.

It is all my way of making real my unending gratitude, of bowing deep and soulfully to Blessed Mama Earth.

and so twas my christmas morning meander in the pages of the chicago tribune, where, yes, i must act all grown up and enter the word of capital letters.

pointillist of joy

poin’til-lism (pwan’), n. [Fr. pointillisme, from pointiller, to mark with dots.] the method of painting of certain French impressionists, in which a white ground is systematically covered with tiny points of pure color that blend together when seen from a distance, producing a luminous effect.

***
and so, i realized, this season, for me, is a pointillist of joy.

i no longer search for the cymbal crash, the percussive cacophony of big bangs. i have an ear out for the tinkling of glass chimes, blowing in the winter breeze. i listen for the bells, far off, gently. i sigh at the sound of simmering on the stove.

i find the beauty, the luminous beauty, in the accumulation of teeny-tiny sparks of joy. and so, the painter of my own tableau, i have my brush always at the ready, tucked within my pocket. i am searching, dabbing, dropping pure color onto the canvas of my life.

i find pure contentment, bliss, in tiny packages, the moments of my life, wrapped up as with a floppy scarlet satin bow.

i find it all around.

and that, for me, is the abundant gift of this season. if you don’t come rushing at it, if you allow it to open itself up, to reveal the deep stirrings, to pierce the dark with incandescent light.

i find it on the kitchen table, crowded now with candles. the menorah, each night adds another glow. the advent wreath, now fully lit. the everyday tapers, standing sentry, now burn too. one dinner might be powered by the light of 10 candles, and we are barely half way into hanukkah. by the end we’ll be holy ablaze (and have the extinguisher at the ready).

i find my points of joy in the sweet perfume of bay leaf and clove that rose, in impermeable clouds, i tell you, from the oven all last eve, as the six pounds of brisket cooked down into the hanukkah elixir.

i find joy in waking early, in plugging in the christmas lights. in the silence of the early morn, when i’m alone. when carols hum from the radio, a seasonal shift from the abysmal morning’s news.

i find joy in toting my coffee can of seed out to the feeders, where cardinals flit, ignite the morning landscape. just this morning i discovered what looked like a white-headed cardinal. there’s no such thing, i know. i won’t find it in any field guide, so do i have some aberration or did someone’s pet parakeet (an odd breed of one at that) fly the coop, and move into my backyard? it is a joy that will delight me all day long, as i try to unravel the mystery of the albino-headed bird.

i find joy this joyful season in wrapping up berry-studded loaves of holiday bread in white baker’s paper, in hearing the rustle of the sturdy wrap as i bend it round the loaf, as i tie it up in string, red string, as i tiptoe in the dark to all my neighbors’ doors, ring the bell and wish a merry christmas.

i find joy in stashing my bedroom closet with odd-shaped boxes and a few bags, santa’s wardrobe, indeed. as my little one will not let on that he knows who santa is, and so i hide the few fine things that santa’s checked off the list, procured for my sweet believer.

i find joy in red berries tucked around the house. a big fat splurge, at 15 bucks for one fistful of christmas berries. but as someone at the market said, “if you can’t splurge at christmas, then when ever would you splurge?”
splurge on, oh joyful wonders.

i find joy by the sleighful in my still-limping cat, my cat who laps up cream as we tend to him, pamper him, await the full return of his vim and vigor.

i find joy in that little boy of ours, the one not too big to snuggle in our beds, the one who whispered a prayer the other night that his big brother would get home safe, “in two pieces,” he requested. two pieces? i shot back, disturbed by the mental picture of his brother snapped in halves. “yeah,” said the little one, “one piece for him, one piece for his luggage.”

indeed, two pieces.

i found everlasting joy this very morning when at last the phone rang. and it was that very brother, a croaky-voiced version all the same. for the better part of half an hour, which felt like all day, no one could find him. the van that had pulled up to the dorm to take him to the airport, they reported that they “couldn’t find him.” the phone rang and rang and no one answered. you needn’t know me long to know what i can imagine in the flash of an instant, and i imagined all right. was without breath or color in my face for the better part of that half hour. till the campus police knocked on his dorm-room door, and found him, sound asleep with runny nose and barely any sound coming from his swollen, croaky throat.

so when the phone rang, when he was alive and not slumped under some tree (or worse), my heart rang out in everlasting joy. joy that will carry me through christmas, indeed.

yes, oh yes, i’ve realized over recent years, and emphatically in recent weeks and days, that i’ve become a gatherer of tiny points of joy.

i embroider my life with sweet somethings, little somethings. the pure satisfaction of a single moment in time when i am immersed, awash, in somethings beautiful.

when i feel the flutter of a wing, not far above my head in the serviceberry branches.

when i inhale the spicy notes of pine or clove or cinnamon and orange peel.

when i wrap my fingers in the chubby little ones of my sweet little boy, as he lays beside me in his flannel pj’s, as he warms the sheets, as he whispers words of love-drenched hope and prayer.

the equation of my life, of my joy, i’ve come to know is a long string of one plus one plus one.

and it all adds up, quite exuberantly, quite deliciously, and intoxicatingly so, to a canvas that takes my breath away.

so luminescent is the depth of holy sacred joy.

merry everything as we tiptoe into the christmas weekend, as we march along through the eight days of hanukkah, as we await the travelers in our lives. as we gather round the hearts and souls we love, and the ones we miss but feel anyway in that mystical way in which our dearest deepest loves never really leave us, can be felt full force through the powers of the heart.
come back for christmas, if you find the time, for i’ve an essay that i’ll post here, once the tribune posts it first.
sending love. and joy.

moon walk

“hey mom, something’s wrong. the sky is green. no, it’s orange. i have a idea. the sun is probably getting ready to come up.”

this, at half past eight on a night when, as always, the orange glow from the city lights oozes across our evening sky, blurring the edges of day and night, urban and beyond.

and so we set out, me and the boy with the tethoscope. or so he called it. actually he had emerged from the basement with the purple plastic spy binoculars, the better to lead the way. so we trudged, he and i, through the great arctic alleys, past the abominable snow shoveler, down the ice floe of a sidewalk.

“be careful,” he warned, my 5-year-old admiral byrd. “there’s ice underneath the snow. hold my hand,” he insisted, the boy with one hand still on the binoculars, peering ahead into the molasses-thick murk of the night.

“mom, why are you walking so fast,” he asked when my toes got so cold i was scrunching them under, shuffling a little more swiftly than when we’d set out, me and my arctic explorer.

we looked up, the orange glow and the snow clouds stretching a sky screen far as we could see on all sides, blocking the moon, most of the stars. we managed to pick out the north star. groped through the heavens, intent on finding the february trifecta: saturn, the ringed one; venus, the evening star; and mars, the angry planet, i tried to explain.

“why is it mad,” he asked, and i didn’t have much of an answer. maybe because it can’t find the moon either. “mars has a mad face,” he told me, making one. “earth has a gloomy face,” he added. why, i wondered out loud. “because we’re using up all the energy. and the sun is getting too close to it, so the moon is trying to get close to the sun so we don’t all fall asleep and never wake up again.”

hmm. not bad for a sky novice.

we are beginners at this, me and the boy with the purple binoculars. i know a kindergarten where the children keep a chart of the moon. the moon journal, they call it. i swooned when i heard the idea. love the notion of a child connecting the dots up above, of a child figuring how to add and subtract with crescents and quarters of the man in the moon.

of a child learning to marvel.

of a child learning how little he is.

learning to read the heavens seems like a very smart thing for a boy who is struggling to learn u, v and j. those scribblings on paper, they don’t seem to stir his sweet little soul, not yet anyway. so maybe the sparkling on high is the way to go, to entice, to engage, to draw him into the learning.

with our fingertips frozen, the tethoscope threatening to stick to his nose, we bid good night to the sky, dashed back in the house.

thawing, i grabbed for the newspaper, spread out the page that might be one of the best in the bunch: the one with the maps, and the charts and the moon. the only place in the news that reliably reports on the heavens.

look here, i showed him. here’s today and here is the moon. and then i learned something. ohhh, i began, making my mouth like a moon. the moon doesn’t rise ‘til minutes to midnight, i found out, i informed. the news, not good news at all, landed with a thud for the boy who’d set out to lock his lens on the moon.

i promised, as i tucked him in bed, i’d get the moon just for him. and so, like a card-carrying lunatic, i crawled from my bed at 2:43, crept down the stairs, walked into the arctic cold night, me and my red-plaid pajammies. i aimed and i grabbed, i got the moon, all right. but what i got was all black and blur.

undaunted, moonstruck maybe, i went back just before dawn, when the blue of the heavens is first being stirred into the black of before. there was no missing this moon, hanging up there in the limbs of the linden. there is his moon. there is your moon, too. the one shining way up above. one half of the snow moon, on its way toward the worm moon of march.

next moon walk, i teach the moon boy how the moons got their names. i’m pretty sure he’ll howl at all that.

for a heavenly guide to learning the sky, check out http://skytonight.com/observing/ataglance

reading by the light of the double dd

not a creature was stirring as i looked out the window into the night. not the ‘possum. not the waddling raccoon. not even an owl, the ol’ nightcaller himself.

it was so cold and so quiet last night, you could have heard a snowflake falling. only it was so cold they were up huddling in clouds.

the moon, just a sliver away from the full snow moon, draped its blue light on what in the day had been white. cast shadows, like night lace, all over the lawn.

i could have stood there for hours, locked in my moon meditation. but i thought i heard rustling from the room up above. so i took to the stairs in the dark, just past bedtime.

ah, yes. a creature was stirring, all right. a boy with a beam powered by double-d batteries. a boy in his bed, with a book on his lap, turning the pages with one hand, holding his moon with the other.

seems we were both locked in moonlight meditations. only his offered forth the story of a worm, a worm who keeps track of his days, of his doings.

seems the pages, the pictures, the underground dramas were too much for the boy with his head once kissed, left snug on the pillow.

he was reading by flashlight, a time-honored rite. only this boy’s no fool, he had backups stashed all around him. three tubes of turn-on light. just in case.

he was deep into the earthworm when i came upon him. he barely looked up, barely flinched. certainly didn’t try hiding the light.

i could not protest; in fact, i just melted. rather like a moonbeam on the frozen earth just out the window.

there is something about stumbling upon a child caught up in a moment of childhood, of wonder, of total absorption in a world that is defined, is outlined, only by him.

it’s like watching a child catch a snowflake on her tongue for the first time. or cupping his hands ‘round a firefly.

who teaches these time-honored tricks? is it somewhere deep in our wiring: stop, behold wonder. use your whole body to grasp it, to taste it, to touch it.

to drink it all in by the light of the moonbeam you hold in your hand.

my whisper today is that each one of us, with children or without, discover, re-discover, the magic of stumbling upon wonder and doing our darnedest to hold onto it, to catch it, to tuck it in a jar, to steal a few sacred moments, under the light of the snow moon, ascending, and carry it like a flashlight in our back pocket. where someone obviously had been carrying his.

you can always pull out a little wonder, cast its light on the dark of the world that surrounds you.