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where wisdom gathers, poetry unfolds and divine light is sparked…

things that go bang in the night.

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until the rat-a-tat-tat, it had been a silent night. not even the usual tossing and turning. but then the big bang came. sounded like gunfire. or maybe a long string of firecrackers. i did what any night-rousled someone would do: i flung back the sheets and leapt toward the window (not such a smart idea as i look in the rear-view mirror).

peering into the murky darkness, trying to make out shapes against the silhouette of the street lamps, i couldn’t see much. only what looked like lots and lots of leaves.

so i did what any half-witted, mostly-asleep someone would do: i ran outside.

it took a half circle of perambulation, as i walked down the bluestone walk and into the street, to realize what was appearing before my still-blurry eyes: a good third of our giant locust tree had decided to fall to the ground, and on its way down the rat-a-tat i had heard was the sound of the big ol’ locust shaving off half the parkway maple.

oh, lordy.

now i am a girl who loves her trees. i come to befriend them. consider them living, breathing specimens with layers and layers of stories. of history. of keeping wise watch on all that unfolds below and above and within. and this particular tree is the muscular one, the centerstage one that, long as i’ve known this old house, has harbored and shaded the front. it’s as if the big old tree is reaching its arms round the house and all who dwell there. it stands in the way, as if the sentry dead-set on keeping us safe. in fact, i’m certain i fell in love with the tree at the very same instant i fell for the house. likely before, since i had to walk beneath and around that fine lacy-leafed locust on my very first traipse up the walk.

it’s the tree whose branches — in the years when it’s grown inches and inches before we’ve brought in the trimmers — tap against our bedroom window panes, and let us know when a storm is stirring up trouble. it’s the tree whose filagree makes for the lacy dapples of light and shadow in the window seat that’s held me through long hours of long-distance phone calls with the boys i so love, and pages and pages and pages of books (i think of it as my “therapy nook” as emphatically as i call it my book nook). it’s the romping ground of sparrows and woodpeckers, and the high-up perch of the cardinal. it’s where the squirrels, whole generations of squirrels, build their nurseries and stash their winter’s larder.

it’s the tree that has long made my night sky an alchemy of heaven and earth, as the stars play peek-a-boo between the tossing branches and leaves.

and now there’s a hole in my sky.

that night, the night of the big crash-bang-boom, our street looked not unlike a crime scene: the cops rolled right up, set flares glaring into the night, all around the perimeter of the tree now sprawled clear across the street. the guy with the chain saw came too, once he was roused from his sleep, clear up in wisconsin he told me, as i tried to fill his mug with coffee. some of the neighbors came too, all of us decked out in our jammies and various iterations of footwear. (one came in big rubber rain boots, i — stupidly — left my flip-flops behind.)

the next morning, still another big branch came crashing to the ground. (i lost another night’s sleep, tossing and turning over the what-if’s with that one, knowing how often our sidewalk is filled with nannies and babies en route to the park down the lane.) the tree gurus are pretty sure the first fallen chunk of the tree had been holding up the one that fell hours later. and everyone’s certain the big tree is strong as it’s ever been. (last winter an old oak in the yard next door fell to the ground, pulled right up out of the earth, and the tree man told me our big locust likely lost one of its buffers from the wind, and now took all westerlies straight on, thus shaking loose any precarious limbs.)

but the part where the story turned decidedly sweet, the part where it really got me to thinking, was what happened once the sunlight came up, and i sent a note off to my faraway boys, to let them know what had happened during the night.

you would have thought an old friend had died.

both sent notes with lots and lots of exclamations. and not the happy kind. both wanted pictures. both knew exactly how shaken i was — because, suddenly, they were too.

it made me think about home. and how even when you’re no longer there, day after day, night after night, you expect it to stay just as it was. home is defined by a curious set of particulars: the creaks in the stairs, the way the bathroom window always gets stuck. the tree that’s always out front.

and when the picture is changed — even when you’re far far away — it takes a bit of realignment. our world is not right. not right away anyway.

so it is with our living, breathing, hurting and healing selves. in the course of our lives we take a mighty long string of blow after blow. it starts early on. most of us can’t even recall what first set us to tears. we take skinned knee and knocks to the head. we fall off swings, we tumble down stairs. we take hurt after hurt, and each time — miraculously — we heal. or we regain some piece of wholeness again. we learn to live with the bruise, or the scar. we learn to live with our hearts shattered to pieces. somehow, some miraculous how, we are stitched back together again. we might even forget just how much it hurt. or maybe we learn to remember without feeling the whole of the sting. sometimes, we even realize the horrible, unbearable hurt has opened the door to some unimaginable room. when my sweet papa died, i decided not to run off to faraway nursing school. instead i stayed close to home, and learned how to type — and a thing or two about newspaper writing — and there in a newsroom six years later, i met the love of my sweet life. and from that came our beautiful blessed couplet of boys, the ones we call our first and second double-bylines.

the point here might simply be that all our life long we are taking hit after hit, and somehow finding the hope and the faith and the possibility that stitches us back together again: never the same, and maybe just a little bit stronger.

and in the meantime, when i look up into the night sky, from down by the trunk of my big old tree, i see heaven’s dome, more stitched with stars than i’ve ever seen before….

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the new hole in my sky

how have the hurts — and holes — in your life, opened you to wide new starry-stitched vistas? 

autumn is the season that begs your attention

All creation holds its breath, listening within me,
because, to hear you, I keep silent.
~ Ranier Maria Rilke ~

i’m deep breathing poetry and wisdom at the 2019 Catholic Imagination Conference in downtown chicago, a biannual sacred-infused assemblage this year drawing a roster of glorious writers including alice mcDermott, tobias wolff, patricia hempl, mary gordon, paul elie, and poets mary szybist, paul mariani, and dana gioia, and more and more to the shores of lake michigan. this year’s biennial is subtitled: “the future of catholic literary tradition,” a subject to which i am curiously drawn. while i’m off inhaling all that these wise ones offer, and as the seasons take their pivot, exuberant summer into majestic autumn, i am leaving here at the table the longer, unedited version of something i once wrote: a count-your-blessings calendar for autumn, the season of awe, the season that begs your deepest attentions. in all, there are four weeks in my blessed-be autumnal calendar, but i might leave two here now, and circle back with the next two later in the season. (on the other hand, i might leave the whole thing here now…)

slowing timean abridged version of this is found on pages 134 to 138 of Slowing Time, my first foray into the world of book publishing, a book that still sells at a slow and humbling trickle. (though not as humbling as the next two…) delight in making this the backdrop to your hours of quietude in the shimmering weeks ahead. i find i can’t ever wrap myself enough in the velvety folds of this turn in the year…

A Count-Your-Blessings Calendar: Blessed be Autumn, Season of Awe…*

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In the Christian calendar, Ordinary Time continues, punctuated with Feast Days, All Saints’ and All Souls’, chief among many. Advent comes as autumn turns toward winter. We kindle lights amid the blanketing darkness. We await the Holy. In the Hebrew calendar, harvest time brings the Days of Awe, the holiest of holy days, from Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year to Yom Kippur, Day of Atonement, and on to Sukkot, Feast of Tabernacles, the harvest celebration where we wrap ourselves in the whole of Creation and God’s abundant glory. From the golden glowing autumn light to the morning’s brisk first breath, this is indeed the Season of Awe.

Week One:

Day 1: Blessed be the golden days and star-stitched nights of autumn. Blessed be triumphant blast of light and jewel-toned tapestry, as the Northern Hemisphere lets out its final hallelujah before deepening, drawing in. And bless those among us who are wide-eyed to the wonderment that is ours for belly-filling feasting.

Day 2: Now’s the interlude when leaves drop their drab summer-worn green for jaw-dropping amber and gold, copper and crimson. Air turns wake-me-up chilly. Pumpkins weigh down the vine. The slant of sun drops in the sky, as we twirl farther and farther away, it is all autumn’s call to attention.

Day 3: Season riddled with goodbyes: Winged flocks take flight on night winds. Hummingbirds hover but an instant. The hearts and souls we love shove off, back to school desks and leafy college quads. Bittersweet the partings, filled with prayer for safe return.

Day 4: There is faith galore in tucking in a bulb, concentrated life. In setting it just so, roots poking down and the shoot facing skyward, where the vernal sun will come, will tickle it awake, coax it from the frozen earth, break through unannounced, startle us with tender slips of green. Resurrection, sealed beneath the earth.

Day 5: Wrap yourself in the prayerful cry of the cello, the orchestra’s autumnal offering. No deeper plea for hope than Bach’s Cello Suite No. 5 in C Minor, especially as unspooled by Yo-Yo Ma. Might it be the backdrop to your autumn prayer? 

Day 6: Behold the piercing, minor-key dissonance, raining from on high. It’s the trumpet blasts of geese in Vs, far above the trees. In this season of migration, as feathered flocks follow heaven’s call, let us bow our hearts when we hear the mournful siren’s song. 

Day 7: English poet and polemicist John Milton says of geese: They are “intelligent of seasons.” Contemplate that wisdom when next you absorb the snow goose’s unseen night cry. 

Week Two:

Day 1: Some call this “the wabi-sabi season,” so defined as the season that pulses with the beauty of sadness and the sadness of beauty, and the breathtaking poetry of imperfection and impermanence. Embrace your own wabi-sabi self.

Day 2: Be on the lookout for the first frost of the autumn, the glass-beaded luminescence that captures the slant of the sun, refracts it, refines it. Wraps it in a ball, makes it more than it was, broadcasts it. When first frost comes — when the architecture of water and cold finds itself frozen — that morning light is magnified, glorified, held up for ovation, a show that won’t last. It’s all part of the whole-cloth majesty that is the autumn.

Day 3: Holy chores of autumn: Head outdoors to chatter with your birds and squirrel friends. Protect them from the coming cold. Toss corn. Pour water into shallow bowls. Smear peanut butter onto tree bark so they can peck it off, stave off the shivers and the rumbly tummies that we fear for them.

Day 4: Partake of autumn’s poetic fruits: honeycrisp apple, mission fig, pomegranate, persimmon, ruby-breasted pear, quince. 

Day 5: Bless the miracle of the monarch, the one of all the 24,000 species of butterflies who migrates the farthest. And whose story brings on goosebumps. For most of the year, the monarch, like every other butterfly, lives an ephemeral life. It’s born, and within weeks, it dies. Not so the monarchs of autumn, they are the Methuselah generation — named for the oldest old man of the Bible, who, according to Genesis 5:27, lived “nine hundred sixty and nine years.” Monarchs born at summer’s end, way up in Canada, live as long as eight months. They exist for one purpose: To fly south, and, come spring, beget the next generation. Who in heaven’s name dreamed up such almighty wonder?

Day 6: Crack open the autumnal recipe box. Bake a crisp or crumble that draws upon the orchard’s harvest. Offer up a prayer for heirloom apple tree, and the woodsman who tended it, and plucked its drooping boughs.

Day 7: Fill the table with invited friends, friends whose big ideas soar like kites against the wind, and whose laughter makes the walls shake. We are blessed with such companions, a word with Latin roots meaning, literally, “bread fellows.”  

Week Three:

Day 1: Bless the season of winged flight, of thousands of miles of flapping wings. Of painted-wing songbirds carrying off their full-throated melodies and charmed warblings, leaving us to absorb the new-found silence of the leafless trees.  

Day 2: It is in the few fat fruits — American cranberry, rosehips — left on the bough and thorny stem, and the up-reached arms of oak and serviceberry that we might find the combination lock to our imagination — and our most satisfying comfort.

Day 3: Treat yourself to a mid-night’s moon lace. Tear off the bedclothes, tiptoe to a window — or if you’re feeling brave, straight out to under heaven’s dome. On a night when the moon is full or nearly so, behold the full-strength moonbeams as they spill across the boughs, the grass. All the earth is dappled in inside-out shadow. Better than Chantilly, and sure to take your breath away. 

Day 4: Savor the gray days of late autumn. When all the world is stripped of excess, pared back to strictly elemental. When even a smidge of color — save, maybe, for the blood red of a clump of berries — is uncalled for, unnecessary.

Day 5: Regard the autumn frost, redux. Miracle of sunbeams captured in wee globes of dew. Or might it be the cold sweat of dawn’s labor, the hard work of night turning to day? Either way, let it take your breath away. First blessing of the day. 

Day 6: Unearth a long-buried tome from your bookshelf, and curl up for a long afternoon’s contemplation. What title tickles your autumnal fancy, and gets you in the mood for counting all your bounty?

Day 7: Dollop sweetness, the gifts of summer’s labor harvested in autumn. Might you choose amber-liquid honey, or bronze molasses? Or do you take your sugar squared, in lumps? Heaped blessing, indeed. 

Week Four:

Day 1: The world is at work in its tasks that trace back to the birth of all time. There was darkness, there was light. Genesis says so. There are seasons, turning. Ask Ecclesiastes.

Day 2: Look out into tangled labyrinth of branch on branch — interrupted only by unkempt knot of leaves assembled by some squirrel intent on keeping warm — and understand what November reveals.

Day 3: As you begin kindling wicks, come nightfall, consider the honeybees’ hard labor to beget the beeswax. It’s estimated that, to gather the pollen to make the honey that’s consumed by bees to craft the honeycomb, the bees fly 150,000 miles to yield one pound of beeswax. 

Day 4: Or, as Bavarian thinker named Karl von Leoprechting wrote, in 1855: “The bee is the only creature which has come to us unchanged from paradise, therefore she gathers the wax for sacred services.” Ponder that when next you strike a match to illuminate the darkness.

Day 5: These are the days when the stark poetry of gnarly branch and endless sky open up to us. When all around is naked, bared, stripped of its cloak, exposed. We might be spurred to pare away all but our very essence.

Day 6: It is jagged silhouette against the charcoal sky that haunts, rustles us, seeps slowly deeply in.

Day 7: “If the only prayer you said in your whole life was ‘Thank you,’ that would be enough.” — German philosopher and mystic Meister Eckhart (1260 – 1328).

what would you add to your own count-your-blessings calendar for this season of deepest awe?

black-eyed susan* © 2006-2019 Barbara Mahany. All Rights Reserved.

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? 

playing house

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as long as i can remember, i’ve been keeping watch. i recall being at the art institute as a little little girl, standing in front of a mary cassatt painting of mother and child, only i was soon turned the other way. or my neck and eyes were anyway. i was far more enchanted by the woman standing just behind me, a woman as elegant as anyone i had ever seen, a silk scarf draped billowingly and oh-so-chicly round her neck and shoulders.

decades later, i was off to nursing school, and before that, working summers and weekends at a hospital, where i would all but be swallowed whole by the stories i could eke out from the nurses’ charts, the overheard snippets of conversation, the scuttlebutt over lunches back in the nurses’ lounge.

then someone gave me a notepad and a pen. ordered me in no uncertain terms: “take notes.” once, racing out the newsroom door to eyeball the apartment of the man suspected of lacing tylenol with cyanide, a legendary reporter, one who’d taken notes all around the world as a wire-service scribe, shot me one last instruction in the school of taking notes, “i want to know what the contac paper on his kitchen shelves looks like.” in other words: don’t miss a detail.

and so, all these years, i’ve been keeping watch. keeping watch on undulations of the lives around me, and my own. keeping watch to make sense. or least to glean some inkling of deeper understanding. communion, often, is the goal. to tease out those strands and threads that weave us all into a whole.

keeping watch on my own life this week, trying to chart the landscape of this house without a child, i keep bumping into one resounding thought: i’m playing house. it’s me and another grownup, and we’re all alone. no one needs to whisper. no one drinks the milk. barely anyone dumps dirty socks down the laundry chute. the hours seem longer and looser than before.

i’m not complaining. but nor am i quite at home. it’s less disconcerting than back in the days when i was first figuring out how to be a mum, and i was forever haunted by the notion that i was forgetting something — like the baby. i remember forever checking to be sure he was strapped into the grocery cart, the stroller, the carseat. i thought it wise to remind myself, “don’t forget the baby,” as if i just might walk out of the store and leave the little sweetheart behind, lost amid the cartons of cottage cheese and the lettuce heads.

this takes degrees less concentration; no one needs remind me that he’s not about to lope down the sidewalk, bound into the car, with two minutes to go till the school bell rings. (so last year!, as they say…) but the absence of the one who’s been here all these last 18 years, hmm, it’s downright hollow every once in a while.

i find it hardest when he calls me on the little phone, and hits the button that makes his face flash on the screen. when i catch a glint of the way his smile unfolds, or the certain twinkle in his eye, i need to all but cable myself to the chair to keep from leaping through that itty-bitty little screen. i read this week an earth-shattering report from the children on the u.s.-mexico border, children who said their “heartbeat hurts,” they are so scared, so lost without their moms and dads. theirs is a horror, mine a stage of life. but i felt the resonance in their exquisite, poetic, horrifying phrase: heartbeats do hurt sometimes, when we miss the ones we love, the ones we don’t quite know how to live without.

there’s a freedom in this newfound state of affairs, a day unbounded by school bells and soccer practices. i only need get out of bed when i need to get out. no one needs me to play at being the ejector parent anymore. no one races past me in the kitchen, reaching for the pancake wrapped in paper towel as he shoves his feet into shoes strewn by the door, and bolts into some car idling at the curb.

with freedom, though, comes responsibility, comes looming question: what will you do with your life? how will you make meaning every day?

i don’t yet know, is the answer. truth is i am slow walking, exploring each new hour as if i’ve been plopped in an unknown, uncharted place and time. and i am savoring. i am breathing deep, and pinching myself that we have actually gotten to this moment: two beautiful boys, grown, gone. on their own flight paths. sometimes, they stumble. and that’s when phone calls come. sometimes they must be soaring. and then i am left to imagine. left to consider this life that’s mine to pick up, carry forward.

and then there’s the playing house. the hard-won, long lost neat-as-a-pin-ness. the unrumpled beds. the bathroom sink that stays sparkly shiny (sans desiccated globs of toothpaste). the setting the table for two (i splurged on new napkin rings this week, and napkins too; decided it was high time we ditch the holey, raggedy ones, now that we are living civilized).

the good news (and i do not take this for granted) is that i really like the fellow with whom i share this old newly-empty house. being alone with him for days on end reminds me of back in the days when he was new to the newsroom, and i had a big fat crush on him. it’s almost as if someone waved a magic wand, and poof, suddenly here we are, all these decades later, the same two of us, only we lived a whole lifetime in between, birthed two lifetimes between us.

only it’s not make-believe.

and the drumbeat of the question, the insistent, persistent question, ala mary oliver, “tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

it’s the question that stirs me night and day….

what stirs you? and how might you answer mary O’s exquisite question? (no need to answer aloud, simply a thought worthy of pondering…)

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.

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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? 

heart to heart, all over again

teddy and mom, heart in hands

teddy and me, heart in hands, 2007

on the eve of the very first day of first grade, twelve long years ago–august 28, 2007–a boy i love had a bumper crop of butterflies flopping about his belly. so did his mama, truth be told. all these years later, as the old red wagon pulls out of the garage (any minute now), loaded down with college essentials, those butterflies are once again on the loose. a little red heart won’t be the solution this time. but, as we drive off into the distance, it seemed more than apt to let this one unspool once again. from the way-back files of the chair, a forever one titled “heart to heart”:

The little red heart is the size of a button. So is its twin, the other half of its whole. 

When the sun peeks in my little one’s room, when he bounds out of bed and into his school clothes, he’ll slip his into his pocket. As his mama will too, with the one of her own. I promised I would. 

A heart in your pocket is a very good thing. Especially on the very first day, the very first long day of the very first grade, when the time between the morning’s good-bye at the schoolhouse door and the zigzag home from the bus stop is wholly untrodden and feels like forever, way past lunch in a lunchroom, and scrambling all over at recess, way past standing in lines and marching through halls, past sitting in chairs and reaching in desks. Way past finding your name on all sorts of supplies, and even a locker you barely know how to begin to use. Way, way past anything you’ve ever imagined. 

A heart in your pocket is a very good thing. 

You give it a squeeze when you need to. You give it a squeeze when you’re sad. Or wobbly. Or lonesome. You give it a squeeze when you’re certain its powers will work like a cell phone, connect you in magical ways, without even dialing. And the heart on the other end of the line will be there, will know that you’re calling, really she will. 

Because hearts in the pocket are like that.

They connect you.

When you are six and going off in the world, for the very first time really. For the very first time when the lumps in your tummy and the ones in your throat are so very big you think they might choke you. Or send you flying to the faraway boys’ room, way, way, way down the hall, before it’s too late. 

The need for a heart, the need for a something, became wholly apparent last night in the dark. 

That’s when hearts are bared. That’s when all that is hiding comes out of the shadows. That’s when your room and your bed get overly crowded. That’s when the things that behave all through the day come haunting. They decide in the night that they want some airtime. They want to romp in your head, stir up a rumpus. 

And that’s when the feet came. Tiptoeing down the stairs, around the corner, right to my side, that’s when the words came too: “Mama, I need to talk to you about something really serious about school.” 

So, of course, I stopped what I’d thought was important, scooped him onto my lap, and listened. 

“I think I’ll be homesick.” 

That was round 1. Before it was ended, we’d talked, reclimbed the stairs, retucked boy into bed, rekissed that curly-haired head. 

Then came round 2.

Again, feet shuffling.

This time I was not far from his room. This time the words came in whispers, barely audible whispers there at the top of the stairs, where I promptly sat down. 

“I’m nervous about tomorrow. I’m afraid I might vomit.”

The child goes straight for the heart. Cuts no corners. Softens no blows. In a word, he took me right back. Took me back to the weeks, there were two of them, one in kindergarten, one in first grade, when I, too, got so sick, so dehydrated, they twice tossed me in the hospital. I remember it vividly. Remember the little pink puppet they sent me home with. But I remember other things, too, that weren’t quite so nice. Things that still give me shudders. 

I know what it is to be so afraid, so rumbly inside that you can’t hear a word, and the room feels as though it’s swirling. 

I took my boy by the hand. We had some digging to do. 

“We need a heart,” I informed him as I led him. As if I knew just how to fix this. As if I were a sorcerer and I held the potion that would cure whatever ailed him. Sometimes even parents play pretend. Because they have to. Because sitting there falling apart would not help. Would not do a thing. 

So we pretend that we’ve all sorts of lotions and potions and balms. We dab cream on a cut, make it feel better. Whip up concoctions to take out the sting. We do voodoo and rain dances, for crying out loud. Whatever it takes to get over the bumps. 

The bump last night called for a little red heart. Or a little wee something. Something he could slip in his pocket and know I was there. Right there. Not down the street, around the corner, and four blocks south. 

So we dug through my top drawer, the one where I stash all my treasures. There was a rock shaped like a heart, a tarnished old ring, a bunny the size of a quarter. And the two red see-through hearts. 

We sifted and sorted. I let him decide. I told him how his big brother, too, used to go off in the world “with me in his pocket.” Explained how it worked. How you give it a squeeze and you know that I’m there. That I’m thinking. And loving. And waiting. For the end of the day when he’ll be home again. 

I told him I, too, would have him in my pocket. I, too, would carry a heart. Give it a squeeze. Send a signal. All day, back and forth, little hearts would be flying. Would be defying all logic and sense, and even some science. 

But they’d not ever quit. Would not break. Nor run out of batteries. They are forever. 

Good thing when you’re six, you know things by heart. And you believe, most of all, the things your mama tells you. 

Especially at night, especially past bedtime, when all of your insides come burbling right out. When the house has no noise and the moon guides your way down the stairs. 

That is the hour that’s blessed. That is the hour that mamas and papas and all the people who love you pull out their needles and thread, and even their little red buttons, whatever it takes to stitch you and your heart back together again. 

Now go to sleep, sweetheart, and when the day comes, just give me a squeeze. and I’ll do the same. We’re as close as two hearts in a pocket.

That’s a promise I’ll keep. I promise.

***

and button or not, all these years later, it’s a promise i’ll keep. all these years later, my sweet grown-up sweetheart, we’re as close as two hearts in a pocket….

how do you get through the bumps and the butterflies that get in the way of your days? and blessings to all who are scattering every which way in these days of off-to-college, back-to-school, and whatever disperses your flocks….

returning the favor

eight years ago, four of us — a soon-to-be fifth grader, a soon-to-be freshman in college, and the two grownups who live in this old house — boarded a plane, then rented a car, taking considerable note of a string of improbable hurricane alerts as we skirted the edge of the berkshires and drove straight to the heart of emily dickinson’s poetic home village.

on the other side of a night when i could not stop the tears, could barely muffle the occasional sob, on the other side of squeezing extra-long-twin sheets round a bumpy old mattress, dodging that rarest of western massachusetts hurricanes, and wandering the greensward that would soon be my firstborn’s faraway home, three of us lined up on the green, tears clouding our eyes, and we hugged the tall one goodbye. whispered last lines of love notes in his ear, blessed him with unspoken incantations, and the little one (for that’s who he was at the time) hugged and hugged and wouldn’t let go.

the kid we left on the college quad, he’s returning the favor. flying home even as i sit here in the lightening dawn. putting aside law books all his own, because eight years later, the one who wouldn’t let go, is going off for his own adventure in college.

in this old house, eight years is our defining narrative. the eight-year-span, our indelible equation. it’s the arc of time between brothers, it’s the second chance i’ve had from the start, to see if — second time around — i just might get it right (or at least a little bit righter).

when you grow up eight years older or younger than the one you declare as your hero, you’re somehow magically stripped of the competitions and jealousies that, ever since cain and abel, seem to get in the way of so many siblings. eight years pretty much erases the dark spots. eight years amplifies and magnifies the essential heart of the matter.

and so, those eight years are drawing him home, the one who this time around will be on the giving end of the goodbye. the one who, on the eve of the start of his own third year of law school (he’ll fly back to new haven just in time to slide into his seat in one of those seminar rooms), he’s coming home to be here for the bumpy days of goodbye.

he’ll be here to tell the soon-to-be college kid what to pack, and what to forget. he’ll be here for those long-and-winding conversations that stretch deep into the folds of the night. heck, i’ve already deputized him, put him in charge of imparting a few things-you-must-know last-minute instructions (given that three times in the last week, i’ve been mistaken for the college kid’s grandma — thank you very much, hairs stripped of original hue, hairs now a shimmering shade of, um, gunmetal grey, or as we like to put it, “pewter” — i figure the 26-year-old stands a far better chance of targeting particular cautions, and speaking the language of post-millennial college).

and then, a week from today, all four of us will clamber into the old red wagon (the one i’ve already packed, swear to god, when my dry run to see if it all fit turned into the what-the-heck, why not leave these sheets and towels and plastic milk crates right where they are, wedged inch-for-inch into the factory-allotted maw at the back of the car). and, this time, barring no middle-of-ohio hurricane warnings, we will point the car in the direction of yet another greensward, this one with a middle path as pretty as any in new england, and we will do what one does when moving a kid into a dorm, and then, at the appointed hour (it’s inscribed in the orientation handout: “1:15 p.m. sunday, family farewell. families leave campus.” p.s. late-breaking update: looks like they’ve gentled the instruction with a simple declarative, “Families, we look forward to seeing you in October for Family Weekend!” in other words, scram!) we will do as we’ve done before, though never in this particular order.

some of us might try to hold back tears (don’t count on me in that bunch), and as promised in the unwritten family code, the biggest brother in the bunch will bestow the final benediction: he’ll reach out his brotherly hand, pull the kid in close, wrap him in one of their signature all-enveloping hugs, whisper words i won’t hear, and then we will inch ourselves away, back to the old red wagon that will be heading home hollowed, and slowly filling with tears….

that’s what we’re doing this week….

do you remember your own college drop off? do you remember the last words imparted before the ones who left you drove off into the distance?

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p.s. photo way above on the right is a placeholder from graduation, when once again the big brother dashed home for a short sweet action-packed weekend. once i click the trophy shot, i’ll swap it out for safe-keeping here. but for now, it’s just perfect. 

sometimes, amid a dystopian summer, it’s a book that brings hope…

IMG_0094the barrage of bad — and horrible, sickening, gut-wrenching — news this week seems endless. bad compounded by worse. dozens gunned down. the souls of two cities shattered by semi-automatic assault weapons, weapons of war brought home to the land of the free. children gasping through sobs, coming home from the first day of school to find their parents taken away, handcuffed, locked into jails. alone and afraid: a child’s worst imaginable nightmare.

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magdalena, wiping away tears

the closer you looked, the uglier it got: the two-month-old whose fingers were broken but whose life was saved when his mama shielded him, fell atop him, nearly crushed him, as she took the bullet so he didn’t. the harder you listened, the uglier it got: 11-year-old magdalena gomez gregorio pleading, “government, please show some heart. let my parent be free.” begging: “i need my dad.”

weeks like this, i picture myself running to the airport, catching a plane to wherever the ugliness is at its worst, and cradling children, lifting them out of the nightmares that haunt them. being the warm, soft chest whose heartbeat they hear as i pull them in close, wrap them safe in my arms. aren’t we all wired to wipe away hurt where we see it? isn’t that the job we put into action day after day, year after year, when we’re people who love?

sometimes i imagine that all this mothering might have been merely rehearsal, that the real work of doling out love, of sopping up hurt, just might come in the chapters ahead. when i just might be able to jump on a plane, or hop in a car, and get to where the hurt is immeasurable. maybe, instead of watching the news, gut-punched, i might be able to put my whole self — my flesh, and my voice, and my heart — in a place where just one drop of  love stands a chance of snuffing out even a drop of some form of suffering.

suffering is never in short supply. suffering begs compassion, begs love, begs whatever ministrations our hearts and our souls, our whispers and wildest imaginations might offer.

maybe that’s why i loved robert ellsberg’s a living gospel — my latest pick for “book for the soul” — so very much.

when you run out of hope, and some days i do, oh i do, there is little more edifying (just another word for putting oomph in your spine) than hunkering down with an author who takes you deep into the heart of lives that remind you how magnificent any one of us might be. lives who remind us what it sounds like when we dip into courage, speak out against injustice, share a table with those who are not only hopeless but penniless too. lives who remind us what it looks like and sounds like when we follow a call to holiness.

follow a call to holiness.

to living and breathing the code of love — selfless love — preached by every sainted seer through the pages of history.

here’s my review, as it ran in the chicago tribune (in the actual paper yesterday, online as of august 2):

In ‘A Living Gospel,’ Robert Ellsberg finds the thread connecting the saintly

By BARBARA MAHANY | Chicago Tribune

‘A Living Gospel’

By Robert Ellsberg, Orbis, 192 pages, $22

In “A Living Gospel,” Robert Ellsberg has written perhaps the most essential illuminant for these darkening times. No farther than the introduction one realizes the uncanny hold of Ellsberg’s fine-grained focus. This is an indelible meditation on living, breathing holiness.

Ellsberg is a self-proclaimed saint-watcher of unorthodox bent; publisher and editor-in-chief of Orbis Books; and former managing editor of The Catholic Worker. He was once chosen to edit the selected writings, diaries and letters of Dorothy Day. Here he opens the book with a quote from the 18th-century Jesuit Jean-Pierre de Caussade: “The Holy Spirit writes no more gospels except in our hearts. All we do from moment to moment is live this new gospel …. We, if we are holy, are the paper; our sufferings and actions are the ink. The workings of the Holy Spirit are his pen, and with it he writes a living gospel.”

So begins Ellsberg’s decidedly anti-hagiography — “My aim was first of all to take the saints down from their pedestals,” he writes. In fact, he’s penned a manuscript best etched into our hearts, kept off the bookshelf and within easy, daily reach.

For the stories gathered here — the lives of some half-dozen not-yet-sainted but certainly saintly, among them Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Flannery O’Connor, and Day herself — are presented with such nuance, in all their complexity and shadow (scrubbed of neither sin nor flaw nor foible). Ellsberg has more than met his hope of making saintliness a participatory endeavor, one open to any and all.

Ellsberg, the son of Pentagon Papers’ protagonist Daniel Ellsberg (revealed here to have enlisted his young son, Robert, 13 at the time, and even-younger daughter, in the surreptitious photocopying of those top-secret Vietnam War files in 1969), weaves his own roundabout trail toward holiness here. Ellsberg credits his father with ushering him into the world of “dedicated peacemakers,” certainly a synonym for “saint.”

Because he’s a natural-born storyteller, the lives he captures here feel not too out of reach, pocked with familiar stumbling blocks, temptations and potholes. Because he shines a light on human capacities for grace, for forgiveness (of self and other), for pacifism in the face of indignity (or worse), Ellsberg stands a mighty chance of stirring in his reader the hope of serious emulation.

The chapter on Holy Women is especially indispensable. In drawing into focus a litany of blessed women — modern-day and otherwise — Ellsberg argues against the erasure of women in a church where men decide who is or is not invited into the country club of saints. In the end, he asks what conclusions are to be drawn from the chronicles of women saints, whether canonized or not.

“There are of course as many types of saints as there are people,” he writes. “Each one offers a unique glimpse of the face of God, each enlarges our moral imagination; each offers new insights into the meaning and possibilities of human life.”

It is Ellsberg’s closing sentences that won’t — and shouldn’t — be forgotten. He quotes a Mormon missionary who once wrote: “There is a thread that connects heaven and earth. If we find that thread everything is meaningful, even death.”

Ellsberg adds, confessionally, “Sometimes I feel I have found that thread, only to lose it the very next moment. It is a thread that runs through the lives of Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and many of the saints, as it does through each of our lives — whether we acknowledge it or not. It is reminding us to be more loving, more truthful, more faithful in facing what Pope Francis in his ‘creed’ calls ‘the surprise of each day.’”

Barbara Mahany’s latest book, “The Blessings of Motherprayer: Sacred Whispers of Mothering,” was published in 2018.

Twitter @BarbaraMahany

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this is what pages look like when what’s in a book is worth inscribing to heart

how do you fight back against hopelessness? sow love where there’s cruelty, injustice, or everyday, insidious hatred?

summer’s saturation point

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there comes a moment, maybe it’s late afternoon when the whir of the cicada rises to jackhammer loud, maybe it’s standing by the bins of tomatoes at the farmer’s market cradling just the right red orb in your palm, maybe it’s sinking your toes in the sand as it cools by the minute at nightfall, but sure as can be, there comes a moment when you know — up, down, and sideways — that you’re in the thick of surround-sound super-saturated summer.

and this is the moment to make the most of it, seize it, lick the juice of it off your chin, bury your toes a little bit deeper, turn the page and keep right on reading: dinner can wait.

this is summer. summer is this.

especially the summer when every ounce of you is counting down. when you wake up knowing how many days there are. how many weeks till you pack up the wagon, and whisper the holy-garden-angel prayer*. (* the prayer that was born when little ears in the back seat behind you were certain the one to whom you were reciting allegiance, the one to whom you petitioned, was none other than “holy garden angel, protect us.”)

especially in august.

so here we are: time for your summer’s checklist.

have you sliced a perfectly ripe, perfectly juicy giant green-striped tomato? a caution-yellow one? one with a fanciful name (cherokee purple, green zebra, Mr. Stripey, montserrat?) and even more fanciful pings to your tastebuds?

have you unfurled a beach towel in your own backyard, flung yourself onto your back, and counted the stars?

have you plucked the sand from in between your toes?

have you lost an afternoon deep in the pages of a hot-burning summer’s read?

have you carried home so many bulging bags from the farmer’s market that the welts in your arm lasted till noon?

have you wished even once that this day — or this hour, or moment — would never ever come to an end?

have you fallen asleep to the nightsounds rushing in through the screens? along with the breeze that tickles your toes?

have you plunked yourself in your favorite perch — maybe a tree house, maybe a cushioned ledge by an upstairs window — and done nothing more arduous than watching the world go by?

have you grabbed a fistful of mint from the garden, rinsed it under the faucet and watched it float in a pitcher of ice, water, and sliced wheels of lemon?

have you stayed up late, and gotten up early, just because you can’t get enough of these summery hours?

have you whispered a prayer of undiluted glory-be for this moment, the blessing of being alive for one more summer?

maybe now is the time….

and here, just because, is the summeriest recipe i’ve stumbled upon in the last string of summery days….(p.s. it’s the dressing that launches this over the moon…..the summery moon, but of course…)

Arugula, Watermelon and Feta Salad 

Yield: 4 servings 

Ingredients: 

1/4 cup freshly squeezed orange juice 

1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (2 lemons)
1/4 cup minced shallots (1 large)

1 tablespoon honey
1/2 cup good olive oil
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper 

6 cups baby arugula, washed and spun dry
1/8th seedless watermelon, rind removed, and cut in 1-inch cubes
12 ounces good feta cheese, 1/2-inch diced
1 cup (4 ounces) whole fresh mint leaves, julienned 

Directions: 

1 Whisk together the orange juice, lemon juice, shallots, honey, salt, and pepper. Slowly pour in the olive oil, whisking constantly, to form an emulsion. If not using within an hour, store the vinaigrette covered in the refrigerator. 

2 Place the arugula, watermelon, feta, and mint in a large bowl. Drizzle with enough vinaigrette to coat the greens lightly and toss well. Taste for seasonings and serve immediately. 

what’s on your summer’s checklist?

the inside-out blessing of the summer fever

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i wouldn’t wish it on anyone. but now that it’s settled into this old house, now that it’s felled the boy whose legs are almost too long to stretch across the couch, the one whose peach fuzz pokes out from under the ice-cold washcloth i lay across his brow, now that it’s given us hours and hours to spend in conversation that flows from idle to silly to whatever’s been corked inside his heart, the summer fever has its advantages.

most especially when it hits on Days 30, 29 and 28 of the countdown to college. in the undulations of fever, when the hours stretch on and the mercury rises again, we’ve burrowed deep into the gift of time spent inches away from each other.

i’ve pulled out all the ministrations he’s come to know by heart, the ones synonymous with being sick in the house where he grew up: the plastic cup filled with ice chips, doused in spoonfuls of honey; the stack of saltines for nibbling, the cold washcloth swirled through the ice-water basin that sits not far from where he lays. he knows the rhythms and sounds of being nursed back to vigor. he asks, from his sickbed, from under the washcloth, “what will i do if i get sick at college?” and i sense it’s one of only dozens of college what-ifs.

the thing about fevers is they take down the walls we wear like armor to get through the highs and lows of the days. fevers strip away the tough stuff, fevers peel away the pretense. fevers let loose what lurks deep inside.

and so these have been the tenderest days. days that wouldn’t have come if the fever hadn’t landed, hadn’t slowed the boy in his i’m-soaking-up-every-hour-with-friends tracks. most days, he’s a blur whirling in and out the front or back door, up the stairs to change from basketball in the sun to dusk at the beach. he’s quite brilliantly making the most of the signature summer, the last one of high school, the last before his tight band of brothers scatters like pool balls across the smooth green velvet that is america’s collegiate landscape.

and because my singular focus these days is soaking up my end of his equation, savoring these hours before it goes silent, before the sheets on his bed are unrumpled for weeks, before i set only two knives and two forks at the dinner table, i’m receiving the summer fever as a gift from the heavens. using the hours to press against his heart the truths i want him to seize: that he’s learned, under our tutelage, just how to fend for himself; that all these years in the crucible of our love is firm foundation for whatever comes his way; that i will always, always be only a phone call away (he actually told me this week he’s going to be calling a lot — this from the kid whose version of a long phone call is three sentences before the dial tone comes).

and, of course, that i will always make house calls.

we’ve even used these hours and days to turn back the clock, to pull from the bookshelf the books he loved as a wee little fellow. he’s curled his hot self beside me as i’ve read and turned pages, followed the antics of poor james and the most giant peach. it’s not a bad thing to take a time-out, to review in real time the idiosyncrasies of how you were loved. in sickness and in health. on good days and days that were not.

it’ll be a long time is my guess till the trusty old washcloth, the one with magical powers, gets pulled from the shelf, and lovingly draped on the very hot brow of the boy i’ve loved through it all.

and now it’s time for the fever to go, and the trusty old washcloth with it….

did you grow up with particular idiosyncrasies on the days you were sick, and someone nursed you back to raring to go?