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Tag: angels among us

“hope is the last thing to die…”

earthquake

some mornings, the news will pummel you. the convulsing state of the world — earthquake, hurricane upon hurricane, hydrogen bomb — it will pummel you.

but then, a voice squawks through the little box tucked hard by the knives on the kitchen counter. it’s a voice coming from thousands of miles away. and, suddenly, it’s as if someone’s tucked a plastic cannula of oxygen straight up your nose. you breathe again. because you just heard the words:

“hope is the last thing to die….”

the words come amid a story seething with hope. a story from the epicenter of mexico city’s rubble, a story that reminds you — emphatically reminds you — that absent all the bureaucracies and hypocrisies and deceptions of politics and government, the human spirit writhes toward goodness. toward reaching out. stranger to stranger; it doesn’t matter. listen to the cries of a child oozing out from under the rubble, and human chains of hope link arms and start digging. hundred pound blocks of concrete, rodded with rebar — watch the woman with matchstick arms hoist it.

with more than 35 buildings pancaked into piles of death and destruction in the mexican capital alone, armies of volunteers arrived. computer analysts, lawyers, an otherwise motley crew of men who grew up playing sandlot football, american football, and put out the call across now-scattered lives to come running — all untrained in the arts and science of hoisting thousands-pound rubble, crawling through slivers of air space, reaching for limbs or the fading breaths of a voice.

“no one is 100-percent prepared for a situation like this,” a lawyer tells the story’s reporter, “but what’s important is that people have come together and haven’t left those who are suffering alone.”

a four-foot-eight woman, known as a “mole,” because she’s been trained to crawl into rubble, searching for bodies, living or dead, adds this: “we mexicans are known for our big hearts, our hard work, and most of all our solidarity.”

those are the words that made me start breathing again. those are the words that reminded me…

human beings are hardwired to rise up against suffering — in the aggregate, yes, but more dramatically, emphatically, in the immediate. in the visceral. in the i’m-looking-into-your-eyes-and-i-see-the-suffering, the anguish.

and that’s the scene unfolding in mexico city right now, where armies of untrained diggers — and water bearers and bandage wrappers and megaphone holders and rubble removers — are showing up and holding the line — holding the line against despair. refusing to leave till the last ember of hope fades into darkness.

and that’s the scene in dominica, one of the pummeled and flooded and left-without-an-electrical-grid caribbean islands. and that’s been the scene this summer in houston and the florida keys and jacksonville and puerto rico and on and on and on where good folk — plain folk, probably even a few ornery folk who haven’t had the chance to shine in a very long time — they all showed up, rolled up their sleeves, slid into thigh-high rubber boots, and showed what the human heart is capable of.

i’ve read story after story of folks who might otherwise barely have grunted as they passed each other on a sidewalk, or raced from driveways into glitzy houses, suddenly trying on superhero capes — barbecuing for a whole neighborhood, turning a washing machine into the community laundry, forming a human chain so a woman in labor could make it through waist-high water from curb to dump truck to get to the hospital to deliver her baby.

the big picture — the rampant bad news — could flatten any one of us, squeeze the last gasp of air out of our lungs. but it’s the tiny droplets, the pixels of deep and undying humanity, that just might put hope to our wings.

in my book, that’s where God moves. in the flesh-to-flesh, hand-to-hand, breath-to-breath bridge of we won’t let you suffer alone. and we’ll hold on — we’ll hold onto hope — for as long as it takes, no matter the impossible odds.

i’m asking today for a litany of whatever fine tales you’ve collected, heard or seen with your very own eyes and ears — stories of blessed beautiful humanity rising up above flood water, hurricane wind, or earth tremoring under our feet. because to know those stories is to believe, is to dig deep into our sorry shaken selves and try to muster the same indomitable life-saving spirit. 

and a blessed new year to all as we wrap ourselves in these holy radiant days of deep awe….

catching the elusive slipstream and other hints of holiness

angel

more than once this week, i’ve felt shivers run my spine. more than once this week, i felt myself suspended in some holy sort of hammock. i’ve giggled. and more than once, i’ve wanted to dash to the telephone, to call my blessed friend. and then, stopped cold, i remembered phone lines don’t go to where she is. wherever she is.

my friend died not two weeks ago.

but that didn’t stop me from feeling her as close to me this week as if we were, as we so often were, huddled on the couch, under the buffalo-check blanket that might belong in a horse barn, but kept us warm through many a long winter’s afternoon when, curled up with mugs of tea and bowls of clementines, we coursed across the landscape of our lives, our hearts, our souls.

death when it’s new can be like that. out of the blue you bump into the reality — a cement-block wall, almost — that the someone you want to reach for, the someone you’ve always reached for, isn’t there. it’s as if your mind is playing tricks with you, taunting, teasing, playing hide-and-seek. maybe it’s just me, but i push my imagination as far and deep as it will go, all but see and hear the someone right before my eyes. convince myself one day the phone will ring, and the someone will be there, and at last i’ll hear, “trick’s up. i was only hiding.”

but in moments when i wasn’t playing mind games, when i’ve been going about the business at hand, i’ve suddenly had a certain sense that something, some holy force, had slipped beneath me, inside me, and propelled me or the world around me in inexplicable ways. well, i’ve an explanation, but it defies logic, and laws of physics.

take, for instance, the fact that all summer i’ve been drudgingly tapping keys on my keyboard, slowly uprooting words from deep down underground. i’d type my way to the end of sentences, but really, i was all but lost. form was formless, and all swirled foggily around me. i was trying to find the words, the shape, the essence of some elusive book. i knew what i wanted it to be, but somehow i couldn’t find the path. i’d get distracted, spend long spells away from the keyboard. i started to think nothing would ever come. i thought a bit about my capacities for swirling foam in coffee at the local barista bar. maybe, after all, that was better use of my waking hours.

but then, this week, once again i sat down. opened up a document, one that had no name, and suddenly — slowly at first, but building in speed and force — i’d renamed it “chapter 1.” it’s finished now, and sits waiting on my computer. it’s been followed, swiftly, by chapters 2 and 3, now almost written down to the very last period.

where’d that slipstream come from, i wondered? i didn’t think too hard to pounce upon my answer.

and in another breathtaking moment of serendipity, a fellow i love, a post-college living-in-a-new-city sort of fellow, he was out and about recently, and struck up animated conversation with a lovely lass. they weren’t too deep into conversation before it was revealed that, out of all the souls who inhabit this giant metropolis, they both just happened to share in common a deep love for our beloved friend who had just died. the fellow had known and loved our friend his whole life long, called her his “spiritual godmother”; the lass was one of her devoted students, one of the very few she’d tucked tightly under her wing, imparting the intricacies of her craft even as her cancer spread and spread. the meeting of the two — the fellow and the lass — could not have been more random, impossibly so. and the depth of their first conversation was, apparently, the sort that glimmers on the prairie.

now i can’t claim to be one of those folks who frankly believes that angels have wings and hover over us. but i do believe in souls that never really fade, and i do believe in forces of holiness and miracle. i’ve spent decades trying to figure out just what happens when someone you love dearly dies. what happens after the last breath comes, and stillness fills the room? i promise to let you know when i nail that one. but until then, i’ll side with the folks who believe that holiness is a force of life abundantly present, and animating all the hours of our day. maybe the work to be done is on our side, maybe it’s about opening ourselves through a particular level of prayerfulness, maybe it’s about a soul so porous we’re a filter, a catch basin, for all that’s good and beautiful and buoyant. maybe thinking aloud about all this is the dumbest thing i’ve ever done. or maybe, in putting words to wondering, we might — together — stumble on some truth, some shimmering shard of wonder, of heaven tumbled down to earth.

i can only hope. and pray. and keep watch for the gentle brilliant touch of my beloved slipped-away friend.

as is so often the case, i had no intention to write a word of this. but the words came anyway. so here we are. i’d been thinking that i was so intent on getting back to chapter 3 and 4, i’d just post the latest edition of my chicago tribune roundup of books for the soul. that might have been the safer, wiser bet. or maybe not. a short bit of one of the reviews was cut for space, so i’ll post the link to the latest roundup here, and down below, i’ll include the unedited version of the first review, the glorious, The Grammar of God: A Journey into the Words and Worlds of the Bible, by Aviyah Kushner, which i loved.

soul-roundup-jpg-20151008

The Grammar of God: A Journey into the Words and Worlds of the Bible
By Aviya Kushner, Spiegel & Grau, 272 pages, $27

The highest praise for a book, perhaps, is tucking it into a slot on your bookshelf where you’ll always be able to effortlessly slide it out, lay it across your lap, and soak it up for a minute or a long afternoon’s absorption. The Grammar of God: A Journey into the Words and Worlds of the Bible, Aviyah Kushner’s poetic and powerful plumbing of both the Hebrew and English translations of the Bible, now rests in just such an easy-to-grab spot in my library.

In a word, it’s brilliant. And beautiful.

Kushner, a poet and journalist who grew up in a Hebrew-speaking home where dinner-hour debate often pivoted on the meaning of the Bible’s original Hebrew text, went off to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop back in the summer of 2002, and found herself in novelist Marilynne Robinson’s class, parsing the Old Testament. Kushner barely recognized the text in English translation.

Therein was launched a trek into language and belief that took Kushner around the globe. She draws on grammarians and lexicographers across the millennia to lay out this roadmap into the depths of sacred text. Not lost is her insistence that much is lost in translation, and even if you’ve no interest in religion, the linguistic excursion here is not to be missed.

Most essentially, Kushner lifts the veil for all of us who don’t know ancient Biblical Hebrew. She pulls us deep inside etymology and history and meaning. And as a Kirkus review so aptly put it, Kushner’s first book is, in the end, “a paean, in a way, to the rigors and frustrations — and ultimate joys — of trying to comprehend the unfathomable.”

how have you brushed up against the holiness of someone you’ve loved, no longer right here among us?

first-world problem, indeed

that i am typing on a screen seems nothing short of a miracle. of course, this is not my trusty and lugged-around laptop. that ol’ die-hard is in the resuscitation ward, aka the genius bar at my neighborhood apple store, where a genius and near-goddess named gretchen is tending it nearly round-the-clock. she’s pumping bodily fluids into it. she’s taking its temp at regular intervals, and calling me with updates, since i am, after all, its next-of-kin.

no, this snowy morning’s typing comes courtesy of the ancient family desktop, a clunky hulk of a thing i’d thought served one sole purpose: tucked-in-the-corner gathering ground for dust and accumulated fur balls.

it’s been a long week, all right.

after weeks of slower and slower typing, and the near constant appearance on my screen of that nettlesome whirling color ball — the one that whispers, “shhh, we’re working on it, lady. cool your jets if you care to make it to the end of the sentence…” — it seemed that i was due for a once-over at the genius bar. what better time to check in there than at the preamble to the super bowl, that annual concussive rite i disregard except to make maximum use of cleared-out stores and shopping aisles, when i alone am out minding by own business.

it didn’t take long at the bar of genius stature for a nice genius of a man to plug in a diagnostic cord, and declare: “hard drive failing.”

i’ll spare you the agony except to say that the external hard drive i’d dutifully plugged in every single day for all the years i owned it, well, it too was failing.

as tears filled my eyes, another nice man at the genius bar bellyflopped his arm across my shoulder and whispered, “honey, this is a first-world problem.”

it is indeed. and i am wholly mindful of how a lifetime archive of lost photos and emails — accumulated across the childhoods of both my boys — measures up against a growling belly that can’t be filled and a litany of other sins and injustices that are too excruciating to even thoughtfully attempt to lodge into any sort of comparison.

suffice it to say i ached for what might be lost — and still might be, since the resuscitation is still ongoing. i couldn’t stop the roll call of lost treasures — the compendium of choice words and knock-me-out passages and poetry i’ve so carefully copied and pasted over the years. every email that ever made my heart go ping! every photo i’ve taken in the last 10 years. the PDFs of every tribune story i  deemed worth keeping as i shuffled out of the newsroom on my last day at what once called itself the world’s greatest newspaper.

and don’t you know that after four months of waiting for the very last round of edits on le book, my dear editor got back to me on tuesday — day 2, the cyber-hostage. and asked that i make the revisions by, um, wednesday. without my laptop, mind you. after carefully keeping other assignments at bay, so when the revisions finally landed in my lap i could devote all my attention to slowing time. (slowing time, by the way, is the title of le book, so that last sentence is deliberate double entendre, one my editor and i find to our liking.)

miraculously, and through the kindness of yet another saint in this saintly equation, i’ve managed to borrow a laptop with just the right accessories, and last eve shipped back what just might be the very last crossed t’s and dotted i’s of slowing time, the book.

funny how life has a way of not unfurling according to your best-laid plans. funny how you process loss — how it comes in waves, and one minute you think you can manage to rise above it — absorb it with zen-master acceptance — and the next minute, you swear you’re going under.

so, yes, my first-world problem turned my days and nights upside down. but here i am — almost on the other side of the cyber-chasm. i figured out  plans  B, C, and when needed, K through R, as well. i made the acquaintance of a saint masquerading as a goth-coiffed apple genius. and the long-awaited final edits on le book are signed, sealed and delivered.

i await a call from the cyber-nurse any hour now. then i’ll toddle off to pick up the rehabilitating laptop. i’ll spoon chicken zoup, or whatever’s needed, till my files and i are reunited. and back to first-world business.

in the meantime, i am beyond grateful to saint gretchen and her undauntability. and i’m plugging in my new external hard drive the minute it gets home.

hope your week was far better than mine. and that you repeat early and often: back up. back up. back up. 

no questions other than: over all the years, what treasure have you lost — cyber or otherwise — and how did you learn to get along knowing it was forever gone? for me there was once a typed letter tucked under my pillow, the night i was crowned homecoming queen, and perhaps the most open-hearted missive my father ever wrote me. for the life of me, i’ve never ever been able to find it — not at the bottom of any box, not anywhere. it’s gone but for the memory of finding it, and being stunned at his tenderness. my father too is gone now, long gone, 33 years monday. but he’s with me every day, in every keystroke, always.

awash in grace

potpieon a cold winter’s night, after a long day in the hollows and dim-lit caverns of a hospital, where the smells are of ether, and the blinking and beeping and red-letter alarms leave you jangled and cored. on a cold winter’s night when your breath freezes in clouds as it puffs from your mouth and your nose, on a night as inky black and icy as that, there is nothing quite so heavenly fine as flicking on the lights to your dark old house, your empty house, and just as you’re beginning to stir about the kitchen, eager to feed your hungry, tired, shoved-aside child, suddenly the doorbell rings.

and there, wearing potholders as mittens, is your rock-of-gibraltar across-the-street neighbor and most blessed friend, a woman who since the night you moved in nearly 11 years ago has defined the art of being there. she is bearing hot-from-the-oven from-scratch chicken pot pie, comfort food enshrined in pyrex, comfort food the way the gods must have first dreamed it.

she is there with hot feathery islands of biscuit, floating atop an ocean of white-meat chicken and succulent broth. she’s chopped carrots, tossed in handfuls of garden peas and knobby pearl onions. she’s laced it with herbs snipped from her winter garden. and, as she stands there, ferrying the feast from the arctic blast at the door to the kitchen counter that moments ago had looked so forlorn, so empty, so begging for food, you feel a healing ooze deep down inside, deep down to where you hadn’t even realized it had all been emptied out.

only, suddenly, with this rock-solid, infinitely un-wobbable woman standing there, you realize that for the very first time all day you are leaning on someone, literally sagging your whole weight against her. you are breathing, exhale and inhale. you’ve just let out all your cares and your worries, your deep-down, tucked-away fear from that one awful moment when the breathing machine let out its shrill alarm of a warning. you have let it — all of it — whoosh right out of you, and as you lean into her sturdy down-coated self, you realize you are utterly, deeply letting her keep you upright. and she is providing.

and that’s how it is in those rare moments of grace, when the angels among us reveal their holy selves. when we are fed. when we are soothed. when we are reminded we needn’t bear it all by our lonesome, whatever it is that needs bearing.

and there is something especially otherworldly about the communion that comes with feeding, being fed, putting fork to lips, tasting deliciousness, feeling that warm lump slide down to the depths of our belly. it is surely sacramental. i’m guessing it’s why manna fell from the heavens, and not washcloths or soles for desert-worn sandals.

there are scant few times in our lives when we are so deeply hollowed. when we’ve been holding our breath for hours and days. might as well have been months. and someone arrives bearing food — that sustenance that takes flight where words fall off the cliff.

i remember those meals, will forever remember those meals, meals that bring me to tears, so deep a place did each of them feed me:  the salad brought to my hospital bedside, complete with china bowl, and silver fork and knife, after my belly had been sliced side to side, and i’d felt so emptied. the hot chicken pot pie ushered in with the arctic draft at my door the night before last.

these are the kindnesses, the graces, that serve as angel wings, that literally lift us and carry us. that prop up our wobbly selves before we fall splat on our faces.

this week has been a week of being awash in grace. every bend in a hospital hallway seemed to bring an unexpected, unscripted angel. the dear old man who ushered my brother and i from the waiting room to the tiny cubicle where my poor mama lay, caught in that netherworld of anesthesia and age. where she somehow mustered the presence of mind to lift her ring finger from amid all the tubes, and ask, scratchily, “can i have my rings back?” for they’d made her take off her wedding rings — hers and my papa’s — hers, for the first time since she’d slipped on that thick gold band back in october of 1954, nearly 60 years on her finger, that ring.

there was the kind-hearted friend who barely heard word of my mama’s surgery and wasted no time dropping off a plush polka-dot blanket, one lined in cardinal red. one that kept me wrapped while i waited, and now keeps my mama wrapped on the long hospital nights.

another cardinal-loving soulmate sent along a teapot painted with the scarlet-feathered breath-taker my mama taught me to love, the one i always think of as hope on a wing. in a gesture of kitchen sisterhood that melts me, two dear friends are huddling together at a cookstove tomorrow, and together whipping up a saturday night feast for me and the next brother who’s flying in to town.

the brother who drove five hours to be here. the one flying in now from faraway maine. the two even farther away who’ve been calling and texting as if we’re all on a string connected to juice cans.

weeks like this one remind you that deep down we don’t ever go it alone. angels huddle and plot out the game plan. whose kindness will come just when it’s needed. whose understanding — without words — will ease you over the hump.

the acts of compassion are infinite. their depth is immeasurable. they’re as essential as oxygen, as unexpected as lightning bolts in a winter’s storm. they keep us from withering. they take up the load that might otherwise grind us into swept-away piles of dust.

bless them, each and every one, through and through and forever.

dear chairs, i type through bleary braincells. and can barely wrap words around thoughts. i’m keeping one eye on the clock, on the arrival of u.s. airways flight 1991, carrying my beloved brother. the chair turned seven yesterday, 12.12. the chair seems to have grown into one of those gathering grounds for angels, who ALWAYS keep me propped upright. love to all. i’m off to the airport. xoxox

tell your favorite prop-me-up tales? what unexpected angels have landed on your doorstep? who’s graced you with kindness you would have dreamed of wishing for????