pull up a chair

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

rail riders

swamp king

“swamp king surveys his realm”

it was one of those ideas that tumbled into place. the two of them — one intrepid, the other more than willing to follow — would set out on uncharted adventure. road trip, in the first iteration. brotherly road trip. but then, suddenly, as was the case long ago in one boy’s history, the rails beckoned. the city of new orleans, in particular beckoned. that’s the name of the rail line, the legendary rail line, as well as the crescent city itself.

a line made famous when steve goodman penned the song, and arlo guthrie, and willie nelson, and john denver covered it. a song that burrows into your brain waves and takes a few days to shake itself out. goodman wrote that “i’ll be gone five hundred miles when the day is done.” but really it’s 924, give or take a twist in the tracks, from chicago to nawlins, meandering along the mighty mississippi.

and so, with a few clicks of the computer, tickets were had, bags were stashed with the few things a boy needs, and the days between soccer weekends were suddenly filled with visions of beignet and po’ boy and, because their grammy insisted, praline. old dear friends who know new orleans like the back of their hand, they dispatched guides to the back alleys and tucked-away treasures. and how perfect that a friend we love just happens to be restaurant critic/food writer for the new orleans times-picayune and, occasionally, the new york times, where his prose lures millions, i’m certain, to the eateries of his adopted metropolis.

we set out to union station monday night, where, according to the amtrak website, the dining car, the famed dining car that boasted of jambalaya and red beans and rice, it would welcome sleeping-car riders a full hour before departure. they’d be clinking forks and knives against china plates, sipping from crystal goblets, as soon as the sleek engine lurched out of the station, through the shadows of a city being drained of its daylight. or so they had every reason to think.

until we got to the counter where they check the tickets. and the lady barked, “oh no. not anymore. that website needs update. all they have now is express meals.”she went on to say the meals were “awful,” went on to explain that she was talking about pre-made sandwiches zapped in a microwave. she advised a trip to the train-station food court before boarding. and i saw the glimmer drain out of two pairs of eyes. i saw a jaw drop, i swear. but that lasted only an instant. they were set for adventure, and a boxed set of bread and cold meat couldn’t derail this duo.

we dashed up the escalator to scoop up the last helping of chicken fried rice, as the vendor closed shop for the night, then we grabbed two stale bagels for the price of one, an end-of-day deal at the bake shop. then, kisses all around, and hopes for the best.

the brothers were off.

the mother and father, not used to this absence of children, motored away. worried, if truth be told (and it always is around here). one or two of the boys was showing sign of distress. one with brewing case of heat stroke, a case that only started to surface the nearer we got to the station.

and, as is often the case in these parts, the narrative plot grows thick with unanticipated turns. so much for unadulterated joy ride.

it started out semi-comically enough when the door to their sliver-sized sleeper car decided to lock behind them as they set off for the dome car. took a train engineer, a dining car waitress named joy-ann, a porter, and a crow bar to get the door unlocked — more than half an hour later — amid a chorus of “never saw this before, not in 35 years working the train. door’s not supposed to do that.”

then, as night fell across the central illinois farmland, the heat stroke of the little one — the one who’d been up for soccer at 5 o’clock that morning, and had played two games on a field that shimmered with 100-degree heat — it got worse and worse, and he got sicker and sicker.

and if you think it’s hard to tend to the sick when they’re splayed out on the couch right before your eyes, you can double the duress when they’re on a train headed south, and you’re stuck home, farther and farther away by the minute. yes, there was a midnight phone call. or two. and yes, there were more in the morning. took the whole of a day before the kid could guzzle enough to slow his breathing, quell his tummy, and stop seeing stars.

and all along a brotherly miracle was underway. each one worried about the other, so much so that every time i talked or texted, the only thing they wanted to talk about was their concern for the other guy. and then, not long after hitting rock bottom, things turned around. i don’t yet know all the details, because as i type they’re rolling home through illinois farm fields, having left behind memphis, and mississippi’s delta, and the swamps and bayou of louisiana.

all i know is that they packed in as much as humanly possible in the 24 hours both were upright and breathing. i know there were po’ boys of various renditions, and something called “snoballs” that turned one of their tongues deep midnight blue for the whole of a day and a night, “no matter how many times i brushed my tongue, mom.” i know there were fried oysters, and an old man on a trolley who filled them with stories and a wallop of wisdom. i know they felt something “sacred” at preservation hall, where the jazz wailed deep into the night. and i know they warmed mightily to the slow southern pace. and the charms of the characters they gathered, like souvenirs, all along the way.

and more than anything, i know they got each other through one of those very tight tunnels, the kind where you can’t see the light at the end. and all you can do is hope and pray and wheedle each other forward.

we set them off on the rails in the hopes that they’d seal their holy blessed year with a cajun-steeped hallelujah, of the summery sort. we hadn’t thought one would be nurse to the other. weren’t anywhere near to witness where and how they discovered the magic. all that matters, though, is they figured it out. they fended for each other. one led, and one followed. and then the tables were turned. as is the way on any zydeco dance floor. as is the way in any life well loved.

welcome home, sweet boys. i missed you.

i love that photo above, “swamp king surveys his realm,” snapped by the older one — photo by will kamin, the credit would read — as they rode the rails home. the one in the photo, aka “swamp king,” was feeling infinitely better by then, the magic of nawlins indeed.

have you taken a trip that turned into far more of an adventure than you’d plotted? and what are the life lessons you carried home?

the day we decided to hatch an egg


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? 

a prayer for beginnings and endings


it’s whirling all around me, the beginnings and endings. mostly the endings.

on the leafy lane where i live, house after house has sprouted those signs they post around here, graduation signs. “congratulations 2016 grad!” the signs trumpet. and the kids who live in those houses, they were four, holding their mama’s hand, toddling down the puddled sidewalk, shyly peeking out from under a big yellow rain hat, the day i met the first of the flock. just yesterday, i thought. yet somehow, in the pancaking of time, they’ve learned to read and pedal bicycles, they’ve gripped hands to the wheel, stolen first kisses, broken bones and borne concussions. and now, they’re practicing “pomp and circumstance.” could it be 14 years later?

and in this old house, one will be awake any minute, gulping down one last hour of geometry infusion, taking two more finals today, leaving only one straggler exam for monday. and the big kid, the one who now refers to himself as, “a retired teacher, retired at almost 23,” he’s wrapped up his very last round of trying to teach kids to read. he and i sat side-by-side the other night, pored over the papers he’d hauled home, the ones with the questions he’d asked his kids to answer, in the very last class, before they piled paper plates with flamin’ hot cheetos, and cooled the flames with juice box upon juice box. turned out it was a lesson in all the questions that matter: what’s your favorite memory, what are you most proud of, what does it mean to live a good life, what kind of person do you want to be when you grow up?

the answers humbled both of us, the kid who’d wondered all year if he was teaching anything, and me, the mama who always knew he was. what most kids called their favorite memory was “when we were all on the floor, and the school got shot.” (or some variation on that school-shooting theme.) one kid was most proud that he’d “learned to read more better.” and then we got to the humdinger of a last question, the one that asked the kids to dip deep into their souls and pull out the rough draft of a dream.

in answer to the question what does it mean to live a good life, a seventh-grader (one well-versed in the echo of gunshot) wrote: “to be able to live life instead of not living at all.” a kid whose dad is in prison wrote: “i wants to be a wealthy person to provide for his family.” and a kid who’s scored a high-school scholarship and a national champion football ring wrote: “i want to live life with a dream.” a sixth-grader, though, might have said it most clearly: “it’ll be no killing.”

the kindergartener who tells anyone who asks that her daddy and her uncle fell down and died “when they tripped over their legs,” (they must not have told her guns were involved last summer and the summer before when the two were gunned down) she simply wrote: “i love you, mr. k.”

and so, school years are over, whole chapters have ended. careers (that short-lived teaching career) have come to a close. and job interviews lie ahead. so, too, do emails telling of roommates, and dorm assignments, and start dates for jobs. and lots and lots of soggy goodbyes.

so on this birth of a day when so much is ending, i’ll whisper these words, and offer them boldly up to the heavens…

first and always, thank you, dear God, for keeping them — all of them — safe. specifically, for each and every drive back and forth on streets where guns aren’t foreign, aren’t far away, where jersey barriers and plain-clothes cops (guns drawn) have been known to block the route. thank you for steering that bullet clear of anyone’s flesh the day it shattered the  schoolroom window, bounced off a pipe, and dropped to the hard tile floor of the preschool classroom. and thank you, while i’m at it, for inspiring my firstborn to ask those questions that might have given him a peek at the little bit of difference it made for him to stick it out till the end of the year, and not abandon the classroom. not even on the days when a second-grader pushed another clear down the stairs, or the pair of sixth-graders devised a science experiment, the one where they shoved their pinkie fingers straight into the electric socket to see what would happen. and not on the day the fourth-grader called him a name you wouldn’t want a kid to know. and not on the day when the fifth-grader punched him — hard — in the gut.

thank you for the hours when you gave them strength, all of them. the days when the soccer coach picked the other kid, the day when the test they’d hoped to ace came back not even close. the day when the job that somebody wanted was already filled.

thank you for the wisps of kindness that softened their days. thank you for the rare few times when i might have unearthed just the right thing to say. when i answered the phone, drove to the schoolhouse door without grumbling, and knew once in a while that the holiest sound i could make was the silence of listening, just listening.

thank you, too, for the joys. for the love birthed in somebody’s heart, and the delight of watching him tenderly bake her a batch of congratulations cookies. and ice them, to boot. each one inscribed with a word or a phrase that signaled their shared secret script.

thank you for the undeniable fact that they surround themselves with very fine friends. friends there in a pinch. friends whom the little one says, “make me a better person.” and friends who thought nothing of flying in for the weekend, halfway across the country, simply because it’s the place my other kid calls home (or at least this year he does).

thank you for the dinners that left the kitchen looking like a battalion rolled through. and thank you for the quiet dinners for four, especially the ones when no one minded the leftovers. thank you — yes, thank you — for the chance to pack two lunches again. and thank you, mightily, that the last one of the year has been packed. the pb & j, retired for the summer. or at least my spreading knife in it.

thank you for all of this, always. thank you for the blessing of pause. of paying attention to cusps, of beginnings and ends. thank you more than anything for this latest whirl around your radiant sun. i know i’m sated. i’m shining.

and what’s in your prayer for beginnings and endings? 

and happy blessed graduation, birthday, end-of-final-exams, whatever is your beginning or ending of choice on this glorious day in may…..

a p.s. about the little bouquet up above: when i was little, the height of springtime pluckings was the gathering up of plain old violets, and heavenly send-me-to-the-moon lily-of-the-valley. in a bow to those bouquets of long ago, i plucked up a little fistful. if i’d not stumbled on a prayer, i might have mused on those. instead, i simply tucked them atop the prayer. a fitting may altar. 



the sentences don’t go to sleep when i do. they follow me to bed. romp while i flutter closed my eyes. pay no attention as i turn down the dial, try to quell their insistent chatter. they carry on merrily, words slithering here and there. one taking a bow, an exit bow, another squeezing in its place on the stage. whole sinewy chains of words, traveling en masse — some sort of compound-complex-intricate dangler, something i’m sure my third-grade teacher warned me never to try without trapeze — they migrate across the page. appear out of nowhere. demand a splot of real estate somewhere on the vast black-and-white tableau.

that’s how it is when you’re up to your neck in what are called revisions, an episodic literary state of being, from which there’s no escape.

you all but nibble tables-of-contents for breakfast. you inhale paragraphs, exhale footnotes. you slow the pumping of your heart to near stand-still (a dangerous state of affairs, to be sure) as you ponder permissions, and zap off begging sorts of notes to those whose words you’re so hoping you can borrow, set off with frilly quote marks that trumpet, “these lovely words came from minds far richer than mine.”

your days and nights are a melee of “delete,” followed frantically by “command-z,” every writer’s salvation keys, the ones that undo whatever ding-dong doozie you’ve just done. i’ve been known to “command-z” for unsightly spells, whole minutes it might seem, so grateful all the while to that unknown programmer who long ago thought to provide mere typers with escape hatch. if only sin and cruelty could so swiftly be erased, undone, made to disappear. but isn’t that why catholics have confession booths?

what i’m revising — day in and day out, and late into the nights — is my next go at this semi-livelihood i’ve taken up, the one in which you find your name spelled out in pretty letters across the front cover of a stash of pages, pages that slide in and out of bookshelves. more simply put, a book is what i’m up to. and what i’m writing — er, revising — is a book i might not have mentioned here, not by name i’m fairly certain.

it’s called motherprayer: lessons in loving, and my friends at abingdon press are once again behind it. if all goes according to plan, and believe you me, i’ll do my part, it’ll land in a big squat box on my doorstep in a mere 10 months, next march to be precise.

it’s a book i’ve been writing for years and years. it’s a book, the one book, i’ve long felt most pulled to publish. it’s the one stash of writing i want to leave behind. and by leave behind, i don’t mean dropped off at the side of a curb, or abandoned, only to crumple into so much flaky yellowed dust. i mean these are words i hope and pray might be left in the hands — or on the bookshelves — of my boys. it’s a stack of love letters, really. ones that began even before here, before the chair was the place where i turned with my truest, tenderest, unpracticed whisperings.

all my life the one thing i’ve always done is write love letters. it’s the medium i know best. it’s what turned my life from nursing to newspapering, really. it was a love letter to my papa that started it. the one they read at his funeral, the one that made the ad man say, “kid, you can write.” what he meant was: “kid, you can write a love letter. you can uncork a heart, and put words to what’s spurting out, spewing merrily and frothily.”

if i pause to think about it, and suddenly i am, it’s how i found my way to that long, lean bespectacled architecture critic with whom i spend my life. and it’s how i made so many friends in high school — my nightly mission, one that shoved aside all homework, was to sit and pen notes to friends who were aching, lost, or lonely; and sometimes simply happy.  i’m pretty sure my love letters are what made me my high school’s unlikely homecoming queen.

but there has never been a love letter that mattered so much as the ones i’ve penned for my boys. the ones i’ve penned here, too, when i hold up to the light some moment, some fraction of time, some quandary or conundrum, some twist or turn in the plot that leaves me breathless, or in tears. and, so often, throwing up my arms to the heavens, turning pleas to prayers, “dear God, show me the way….” “dear God, stitch this shattered heart….” “dear Holy God, thank you…”

it’s motherprayer.

and for the life of me, i can’t seem to shake my sense that it’s here, in these front lines of the mother-child tangle, that so much blessed wisdom pulses. and so i keep close watch, i plumb the depths, i poke around — year after year, chapter upon chapter.

which is how i came to gather up a stash — each in the form of an essay, a chance to catch the fleeting moment, some crucible of childhood and motherhood — and why i’ve culled and tossed, boiled down the lot to the ones that just might hold a glimmer of the elusive truths we’re after.

it’s motherprayer, a love story. one i’ve been deeply writing for the last quarter century.

what’s your best medium, the one in which your heart and soul most deeply feel the muse? 


he gave us a year: this mama will never forget


the first inkling came a year ago december. it was a bitter cold sunday, and the voice on the line was one that had been making my heart skip since the first time i heard it. the words that followed were these: “mommo, i’ve been thinking. i want to do something meaningful in the year between college and law school, and i can’t think of anything more meaningful than being there for tedd. i think i’ll come home for a year.”

such is the sound of wishes come true. of prayer you hadn’t even put to words, come tumbling true. a mama’s wildest hope.

so, back on a sultry june afternoon, the old black sedan pulled down the alley. out spilled a boy and a thousand some boxes. a childhood bedroom was duly re-ordered. carpet was ditched; floorboards, exposed. old books, the books of a boyhood, were pulled and tossed in a box. college tomes took their place. jobs were procured, the ones that would keep him busy by day. by night, he made his place at the side of the much younger brother, the brother just finding his way into high school, a high school with corridors known to be steep.

DSCF1307for one whole year, a year now gliding toward its close, big brother and little have entwined their hearts a little bit closer. there’ve been late-night runs for grilled cheese. and sartorial counsel unfurled at the bathroom door. there’ve been soccer goals saved in front of the cheering — and very proud — older brother. and shoulder-to-shoulder talks on the couch, in the car, on the all-night airplane ride.

it was into his big brother’s arms that the little one fell the morning our old cat died. the two of them crying, together. one of them wailing, “he was our third brother.” both of them wholly understanding the depth of that truth.

he was here for his brother, yes, but he was here, too, for the whole of us — night after night, as we sat, held hands, and whispered a prayer before picking up forks. not one single dinner for four did i ever take for granted. each one felt sacred. felt numbered.

he was here in this unforgettable year, this year of loss as much as gain. he was here the day we got word that his grandpa had died; that very night, he stood by the side of his papa, both wrapped in their prayer shawls, at synagogue, on the eve of the most solemn day of atonement. he was there, to hold his father’s elbow during the hebrew prayer of mourning. he was there to notice the tear that spilled from his father’s eye. i was too. i saw and felt with my whole soul the presence of father and son standing shoulder-to-shoulder, prayer shawl-to-prayer shawl, in the hour of that father’s deepest grief.

he was here, too, when friend after friend said goodbye before dying, in this year of hard loss. he was here to wrap his arm, and his laughter, around the grieving widower who has spent most every weekend with all of us, sopping up the pieces of his deeply shattered heart.

he was here for me, his old mama. the one who will never tire of long talks at the side of his bed, or chopping in sync at the kitchen counter. i never even minded the piles of laundry, knowing with each pair of boxers i folded that it was a task that wouldn’t last. i considered it something akin to charming to iron old shirts, to track down orphaned socks.

the what’s-next isn’t quite worked out. but the calls are out. the interviews, scheduled. a move will be in the mix. i know that. i’ve always known that.

which is what made this year the most priceless gift i could have imagined. a mother’s gift beyond measure.

it was all a blessing. all wholly unexpected. all counter to cultural norms that these days send kids sailing post college. he came home. he didn’t mind — not so much anyway — the questions from neighbors, the ones who might have looked askance at a kid whose only post-college option appeared to be a return to the roost. we knew otherwise. we knew the whole time.

he’d come home for one reason only: love.

he’d come home for the rare and breathtaking gift of stitching together two hearts. hearts born eight years apart. hearts whose plots on the lifeline had necessarily thrown them into parallel orbits — when one was learning to drive, the other was learning to read. when one was finding his way through a college quad, the other was starting out middle school. but this year — one starting high school, one a man of the world and not too old to remember well the poignant trials of this particular high school — there was much deepening to be done. they could laugh at each other’s jokes. play each other’s silly screen games. bolster each other’s hearts when either one was pummeled. photo

what they grew, over the shifting of seasons, over late nights and not-so-early mornings, was a brotherly love to last a lifetime.

i often flash forward in my mind’s eye, imagine them calling each other in the long years ahead. i imagine their faces, lined with deepening grooves, the ones that come from living. i imagine their manly voices, calling long-distance — just to laugh, simply to celebrate, to be the front line in each other’s rescue squad.

i once feared that the older one — long the only one — would be all alone after we’d gone. i know now, i pray now, that they’ll long have each other’s company — shared stories, shared love, unbreakable bond.

and so, on the brink of that second sunday in may that honors motherhood, i find myself sated. i need no toast points ferried to bed. no violets clumped in a vase. i don’t even need a hand-drawn card. i’ve lived and breathed a year i never expected. in the short story of my life there will always be this one radiant whirl around the sun.

and that’s more than i’d ever have dreamed when someone once showed me the flickering spot on the ultrasound, the one they said was his heart, very much alive. the one that ever since has quickened the pulse of my own. my very own metronome, come home, all in the name of pure love.

happy blessed day of mothering, to all who mother in the infinite ways of that certain brand of loving. to my own mama, and the mother of my heart, the one i was gifted through marriage. may your days be filled with the knowing that the children you birthed simply adore you. and may the memory of the mamas who birthed you, and loved you, fill your hearts on this day of honoring a mama’s rare love.    

what one gift do you wish for, what one unimaginable gift? or have you found it already?

after the eulogies: the hard part of being human


it’s been months and weeks now. months since one friend died. weeks since the other. maybe because it’s been one after another, one too-soon death followed by another, i’ve tried mightily to listen to the lessons i’m certain they and the heavens were trying to teach. to pound into my thick hard impenetrable skull.

to make sure i didn’t miss the point: live with all your heart. live now. don’t let waste a precious second. and do not get tangled in all of those snarls that really, truly, could not matter less.

why, then, is the last of those truths — the most certainly human — so impossibly out of our reach, or mine anyway?

oh, i’ve cried plenty across the hours of all these months and weeks. tears poured out of the blue because i heard a voice that reminded me of one of my two friends. because i bumped into an email. or a recipe. or a pine cone tucked into a pocket from the last time we walked in the woods.

in the rawest days following death, your head — your whole being, really — all but quivers with the newness, the wrongness, of this life that seems to have a hole torn in the thick of it. in the hours when the stories are churned, and told and retold, you pay keenest attention. you distill the essence, as if a potion that might just save you. you whisper the hardest truths of a life just lost, and you spin them into incantations, promises to the slipping-away friend that you’ll never forget. you’ll never never forget to be alive in just the way their parting words implored.

“Keep marveling,” wrote my friend who died in september, words she’d sent at the dawn of a summer’s day when she was pulled to watch the sun rise over the lake, and wanted me, too, to never stop marveling. and then, in a text one week before she died, she wrote: “Xxx swirl love swirl love recipe for today” (she’d had no time for punctuation that morning, and i didn’t need it.)

not many months before that very last text, exactly one year ago today, she wrote me an email that felt almost like haiku, or a buddhist koan, wisdom refined to its purest: “blessings, blessings, more blessings. every minute is bonus. sun. birds. now.”

my friend who died in march, she too, left me with instructions. she wrote: “if you love the life you have, please, please, practice gratitude. wake up every morning acknowledging just how much beauty is in your world. pay attention to it, honor it and keep your heart and your eyes wide open. you won’t regret it.”

IMG_7507because i love those words so much, because they wound up being inscribed on the back of the prayer card at my friend’s memorial service two saturdays ago, i’ve tucked them on my kitchen counter, just beneath the window sill, where i keep watch on the wonders in my tucked-away garden. i’ve made them my everyday altar. i perched the card in precisely the spot where i stand when i make my coffee each morning, where i pull a cookie out from under the great glass dome, whenever i’m packing my little one’s lunch. i perched the card at the pulse point of my everyday, where i sometimes pause to stare through the panes, to catch a glimpse of springtime unfolding, to marvel at the flashing-by pair of cardinals, entwirled in the vernal pas de deux of lovebirds.

and here’s the hard part: no matter how deeply you promise, now matter how fully you inhale the one sure thing you know — that the only way to be alive is to be infused with love — the certainties begin to fade. or maybe they only get muddied. it’s the stuff of being human that never fails to knock us at the knees.

we lose track of our promise to live each and every day as if it might be our last, and to ferret out all piddling nuisance and distraction. and it’s not because we’re fatalistic or showing off our celtic obsession with the beyond, but only because it puts the sharpest edge to being alive.

yet, the litany of temptations is as quotidian, as humble, as imaginable. it goes something like this: the guy in the shiny silver SUV who lays on the horn from just behind you, because you’ve decided to heed the red octagon that’s insisting you STOP; the soccer coach who picks the other kid (after months and months of vying) and doesn’t bother to tell you directly, deputizing someone else to deliver the news you know will break your kid’s heart; the email that wasn’t supposed to land in your mailbox, the one sent by mistake, by someone who meant to grouse behind your back, except that she hit reply instead of forward. oops.

yes, truth be told, it’s these insignificant traps that clutch us by the ankles, that totter us from our vows to stick sure-footedly to a life lived beautifully, gently, blessedly. to stay above the fray, as if wafting with angel wings, hovering over the melee.

i try, with all my might, to resist the temptation. to not give in to the bitter impulse. to stay tuned to the wonder, the astonishment. it’s being human that makes it so hard.

which is why i walk around these days with two slips of paper in my pocket, slips i reach for as if prayer beads, whenever i need to fill my lungs — and my heart — with all that is holy, to discharge the everyday demons:

“swirl love swirl love recipe for today,” reads one of those slips.

“wake up every morning acknowledging just how much beauty is in your world,” reads the other.

and so, on the days, in the hollows of hours, when my promises tumble from my heart, and i feel my knees begin to wobble, i reach my hand in my pocket, and i hold on tight to the last best instruction from my two beautiful friends now watching from heaven.

what makes you tumble? and how do you find the strength to right yourself?

and into my kitchen, they all congregated


i’d ordered the brisket, five pounds of first-cut beast, as instructed. i was due to dash out the door to the butcher’s at the agreed-upon hour, but first i needed to quick-read my passover checklist. so i pulled my family cookery book off the shelf, the one where, over the years, i’ve tucked snippets and pages and odd scribbled notes. it’s my holding yard for guideposts to brisket and kugel and those chopped balls of fish called gefilte — decades and centuries of recipes, really, passed one generation to the next.

in my case, it’s the fat stash of invitations into an ancient tradition that was not mine, but now is. in my case, it’s my compendium of adopted jewish mothers and grandmothers and aunties and surrogate whisperers over my shoulder, all committed to paper and ink, and clicked into a three-ring binder.

and that’s when the first kitchen companion — unseen but certainly sensed — came into the room. before i got to the tab marked “jewish holidays,” i’d flipped open a page, and there was a name staring out at me, the name of my irish friend who’d just died, tagged in crisp typed letters at the bottom of her blueberry cake, one she must have passed along because once i’d oohed and ahh-ed. i paused for a moment, picturing her, picturing her blueberries, picturing her rare nod to domesticity (though she always loved a great meal). and then i turned another page; i found another now-departed instructor of kitchen arts. i scanned over the words, her careful instruction, her side whispers and peculiar idiosyncrasies, always tucked off to the margin in parenthetical insistence. (“Try not to burn it.” “yes, tablespoons,” “don’t food process, or you will have mush,” “it’s OK if it seeps over the rest…”)

i came to the brisket, the one my boys practically lick off the plate. i followed my scribbles for haroset, the mortar of apples and walnuts and cinnamon and honey, with a splash of manishewitz kosher concord wine. i read through kugel, one i’d not made before, but one my boys have counted on, ever since their very first passover at the long, long table of tribune folk, the one that for them will forever be synonymous with the exodus from egypt. with every page i turned, i drew in another to my sacred kitchen circle: harlene ellin’s mama, queen of the brisket; ina, whose claim to fame (besides her long-standing, much-loved chicago breakfast eatery) is the seltzer she adds to her matzoh balls to make them “floaters” of cloud-like proportion; andrea, who wandered by the other day, and did not scoot off before penning an all-new kugel and a middle-eastern charoset, now added to my collection.

and then, assured of my passover-cooking itinerary, i reached on the shelf for the mini-sized chopper of apples i’d employ for making old-fashioned haroset. as i lifted the sharp blade and bowl from the box, out toppled a post-it, now nearly 23 years old. it was from the grandma of my heart, my grandmother-in-law whom i loved fromIMG_7512 the get-go. just weeks after our firstborn was born, she’d packed up the mini-chopper and sent it from west palm beach to our little house in chicago. she tucked in a note, in her signature scribble: “dear children,” she began, declaring straight off that she counted me one of her own. “perhaps you will be able to grind veg. for willie when he is ready for them.” and suddenly grandma syl (“the teaneck tornado,” they called all four-foot-nine of her) was there in the kitchen beside me, pressing against my shoulder blade, her tousled silvery head barely reaching the top of my arm. wasn’t long till i was awash in the tears that come when remembering hurtles you back in time, erases the years, fills your head and your heart with unmistakeable presence. i could hear the squeak of her voice. i could feel, in an instant, as if it was the summer of 1993 all over again, the weight of the lump in my arms, the newborn lump who’d precipitated the need, apparently, for a rapid-fire way to make baby puree. (and, as i stood there blinking away my tears, i re-sealed my vow never to toss out a love note or a scrap that might come tumbling from the pages of a book, or the contents of a gift box, swirling you back in time every time, rekindling the thump of the heart that won’t ever fade.)

and so it went, hour upon hour yesterday. as i chopped and stirred and cranked the oven. by day’s end, when the table was set with dishes passed from one china cabinet to the next, when i’d pulled the haggadahs from the shelf, found the seating chart from last year, with yet another name no longer among us, i’d filled my house with those i’ve loved and lost.

it must be the sorrow that’s made me more porous this year. that, according to celtic tradition, has made for the thinning between heaven and earth, that’s pushed my soul soft up against the sacred openings, where angels seep in.

and why not fill my jewish holiday kitchen, my passover kitchen, with page after page of those who’ve shown me the way? those who took my unfamiliar irish-catholic hand, and led me into the back lanes and secret passageways of this jewish-catholic marriage? why not invite them all into my kitchen for the day, and set a place at the table — at my heart — for each and every one of them?

so tonight, when i bow my head and strike the match to light the blessed shabbat and pesach candles, everyone else will count a mere five at the table. i, though, will feel the embrace of a whole company of cookstove companions and patron saints of jewish cookery. and i will offer up a litany of prayer for each and every one of them. each and every one of the ones who’ve shown me the shortcuts to heaven, where too many now reside.


brisket, before its overnight nap in the fridge

do you too find cookery books, the homespun kind, fill your kitchen with those you’ve loved, and those who’ve shown you particular ways? 

p.s. i know i promised field notes from my poetry get-away, and those will come — next week, perhaps. the bottom line was that paying attention is at the heart of poetry and prayer, and we’re all the richer for keeping a keen eye to the mystery and miracle that abounds.


haroset: apples, walnuts, cinnamon, honey, with a splash of manishewitz


roasted shank bone, roasted egg for the seder plate

pilgrimage to the land of poets – and spring peepers, while we’re at it


a short interlude of my poetry bookshelf (alphabetical by poet, of course)

i’m told tales of folks who slip their finery off their boudoir shelves, who tuck silks and satins into trunks and valises. i’m told they jet off to faraway places, wiggle their toes in pure white sands. sip intoxicants adorned with wee paper parasols and wedges of papaya. then, i’m told, they manage to find their way home, whole again.

i’d not know from such exotica. and i doubt it’d do much besides break me out in patchy hives.

i, in sharp contrast, am yanking out a sweater or three, tucking them alongside my toothbrush. i’ll pack a stash of honeycrisp apples (an upgrade for the occasion) and piles of reporter’s notebooks, then slide behind the wheel of my old red wagon, and motor my way to grand rapids, smack dab in the palm of the mitten state just to the north and the east of my land of lincoln. i’ll hole up for three days of prayerful prose and poetry, and thinking way beyond the quotidian box.

it’s called the festival of faith and writing, and it’s a poet’s idea of heaven on earth. especially if you take your poetry infused with a dollop of holy. it’s an every-other-year consortium where the mystical meets iambic pentameter, or more likely the freest of free verse. it’s a forget-about-lunch, who-needs-sleep, dawn-till-midnight fill-your-lungs-with-real-life-bylines-who-make-you-swoon jamboree.

this year it’s where tobias wolff and george saunders (professor and protege, respectively, long ago at syracuse university) will put heads together for a public tete-a-tete. where dani shapiro, memoirist and essayist, will “insist that sorrow not be meaningless.” and where poet scott cairns will mine eastern orthodox liturgy to “clear a pathway through the slings and arrows of modern life.” ashley bryan, the 92-year-old children’s book author and illustrator, will illuminate the art-making behind his collections of black american spirituals for children. and, before the first day’s dinner hour, i’ll sit down in a small room to listen to christian wiman, guggenheim fellow, former editor of poetry magazine, now senior lecturer in divinity and literature at yale’s divinity school, read poems from every riven thing, or passages from my bright abyss: meditation of a modern believer, which the new republic called “an apologia and a prayer, an invitation and a fellow traveler for any who suffer and all who believe.” before i nod off, i’ll whirl in the incantatory vapors of zadie smith who will ponder the question, “why write?”

yes, by day, i’ll binge on words and thoughts that stir the soul, and, often, put goosebumps to the flesh (the surest sign i know that God’s in the neighborhood). and then at night, i’ll make my escape to a historic inn, where a room under the eaves will be my hideaway. and where i’ll forego dreams for the sheer joy of turning pages upon pages, all while plopped atop my featherbed. or perhaps i’ll shrivel like a prune in the depths of my victorian claw-footed tub.

and it just might be the surest cure for my tattered soul.

as i did two years ago, i’ll be taking copious notes, and promise to report back next week, with all the snippets and moments that make me woozy.

but, of all the poetry the days will bring, the one i’m most awaiting is wholly otherworldly, and not propelled to sound waves by human breath. it’s amphibian, as a matter of fact: the wee spring peepers, whose dissonant and deafening nightsong, rising from a blur of woods, stopped me more than anything i’d heard two years ago april.

back then, i described the soul-perking moment thusly:

the moon was half both nights, or nearly so. the sky, a western michigan sodden blue. the daylight not yet rinsed out. the night shadow inking in. and then, from the lacy backdrop of leafless woods, the rising vernal chorus of the spring peepers, that amphibian night song that breaks you out in goosebumps — or it does me, anyway. it’s a froggy croak — a high-pitched rendition, indeed — i’d not heard since trying to fall asleep in the upstairs dormer of my husband’s boyhood home, where the backyard pond and its full-throated citizens lull me to dreamland with their percolating melodies. i wanted to record a few bars for you, so you too could share the goosebumps. instead, i offer this, borrowed from the land of internet.

listen in to the peepers for now, and i’ll be back next week, to pour forth the very best i tuck into my writerly notebooks.

and a bit of poetic amuse-bouche till then:

A Word

For A.B.

She said God. He seems to be there
when I call on Him but calling
has been difficult too. Painful.

And as she quieted to find
another word, I was delivered
once more to my own long grappling

with that very angel here — still
here — at the base of the ancient
ladder of ascent, in foul dust

languishing yet at the very
bottom rung, letting go my grip
long before the blessing.

Source: Poetry (July/August 2013).

if you imagined a getaway for the soul, a stretch of days to soothe and restore, where would you go? what would you ink into your itinerary? 

and, p.s., happy blessed birthday to my mother-of-heart, ginny, the most loyal reader of the chair that ever there was. and happy one day late to my little ellabellabeautiful! 

the liturgy of dawn


for years now, that banged-up tin has been ferrying my loads of seed from house to trough for feathered friends…

it begins, of course, in the dark. it begins when i release the loose cocoon, the flannel cocoon, that’s enwrapped my wisps of dream. i flip back the sheets and plant my soles wobbly on the ground. the vestments these days are nearly always variation on the same: stretchy yoga pants, long-sleeve T, bare feet, and the snuggliest sweater i can find.

there’s the splashing and dabbing in the room where water flows. then it’s down the stairs, around the bend, and into the kitchen where the ministration of the coffee begins. beans + water = the next-best reason i get out of bed, the first hot chalice of coffee, the one around which i wrap my palms, deep breathe and drink.

sometimes i play a game. tell myself the coffee has to wait. i can’t partake till i’ve gone outside, till i go deep into the liturgical practice of dawn. but some days i’m more gentle with myself: i pour the steamy black brew and tiptoe toward the door.

before i turn the knob, i pause to lift the lid on the old white tin, the one quite near the door, the one that holds the excuse for going outdoors. a banged-up coffee can, just big enough to hold a dose of seed for all my birds, awaits. i scoop and fill, now fully armed for my morning’s task.

i step beyond the kitchen. i step into the dawn.

that’s where i find the holiness every time. i stand beneath the dome, some mornings star-stitched, but this morning a vast gray puff of cloud. the morning song was no quieter for the lack of starlight. the morning song, already, was at full salute. a trill from the thicket to my left, a piercing cry from way on high and somewhere to my right.

not far off, i hear the morning train, paused at the station. it’s the only hint that other humans inhabit my morning hour. and because this is the april that yearns to be winter, my bare feet felt every ounce of cold. i dashed back in for boots before trudging across the ooze to dump my mix of seeds and nuts and plump dried fruit in the trough for birds.

and not a minute after dumping, the first of two papa cardinals came flitting in. chirped a certain note of gratitude, then filled his beak, and then his belly.

it’s the liturgy of the dawn. the carved-out fraction of an hour that settles deep into my soul. that makes one day richer than another. it’s where my prayer takes root. oh, there might be a whisper here or there, as i shake off sheets and tumble toward the pile of clothes. but it’s not till i’m alone, under the dome of dawn, that the deep-down prayer, and the deep-down quiet settle in.

just yesterday, someone asked me how i find the way to slow time, how i set my own internal clock to a rhythm that allows the sacred to seep in.

“well, it begins with the dawn,” i said. it begins when i’m all alone, just me and God and the birth of another blessed day. (truth be told, i still miss my old fat cat, the furry acolyte who met me at the door, who rubbed his ears against my ankles, followed me to the prayer bench where i often plop on days that don’t insist on abbreviated vespers.)

once i’ve inhaled deeply of the dawn, once i’ve filled my ears with the song of the feathered choristers, watched the flocks swoop in for their fill of what i’ve dumped from my old banged-up coffee can, once i’ve watched the curled-up buds on all the boughs, taken measure of their proximity to blossoming, i lay down an undercoat of prayer. i name the ones for whom the blessings are most urgent. i name the ones i love, one by one, as if the mere pronunciation of their name is an anointing. and then i press those prayers into place through the simple act of breathing. isn’t prayer sometimes simply intermingling earthly breath with the breath of the Divine, heaven’s reach swirling down to lift us from our leaden station? isn’t prayer the posture that takes away what weighs us down, that shares the yoke? that wraps us in the hold that whispers, “you’re not alone. this isn’t yours to carry all by your weary worn-out self…”

it’s the holy hour that pulls me from my bed. the one certain anchor to begin another day. the grace of dawn is my beginning. as if a golden-threaded vestment into which i slip my arms, it’s the only wrap i know that holds the hope of peace throughout the hours still to come.

how do you squeeze in the grace that fills the hours of your day? 


tender is the earth


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

bettye tucker

miss bettye tucker

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

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

grape hyacinth