pull up a chair

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

Tag: caretaking

p.s. the wholly unsurprising what-came-next (or, can’t quash a mama’s urge to tuck her chicks beneath her wings. certainly not when one is burning up with fever…)

in which we recount the inevitable rescue mission to pluck sick kid from college dorm, and tuck him home where he belongs….

in last week’s episode, we had a sick sophomore in college who’d been quarantined in an old comfort inn somewhere in the vast ohio countryside, a kid who’d been saved from despair and starvation by the glorious graces of one saint melissa, the college catering director who leapt full throttle into the ministrations of a mama hen intent on plying her charge with saltines and gingerale, chicken zoup and instant rice cups, to highlight but a bit of her extraordinary and voluminous six-bag grocery list.

the tale of woe and mono continues…

round about sunday morning, when the fever teetered still at the almost-104 yard-line, when the great ER-doc friend here in chicago endorsed rescue, when the father of said sick kid was jangling the car keys and lacing up his shoes, it was decided that we were pointing the old red wagon straight toward gambier, ohio, and bringing home our ailing one.

which, of course, is where he belonged. six days of round-the-clock FaceTiming — the digital tether now afforded us in this age of iPhone — is at least five days too long. and as much as we didn’t want to interrupt this already surreal semester, perhaps the only one on campus for the sophomores and freshmen this COVID year, we couldn’t bear the thought of him all alone all through the long and fevered nights, unable to shuffle to the fridge for so much as another water bottle.

halfway to ohio, our beloved long-time pediatrician (officially no longer on the case, but again, one of those angels you don’t let go of) dialed in, and ticked off names of ERs he’d trust along our long drive home, should we need to pull over and check in at any one of them. it was, in fact, that scary.

in one of the dozens of text messages i was pinging to our sweet boy, one in which i wrote how sorry i was for having to scoop him up from college, he wrote back, “I cant wait to come home” and then: “It is a prayer answered”

“You just made me cry” i typed through tears, and added: “Daddy says cavalry is coming”

and i tell you, the minute that sweet sick boy was strapped in the station-wagon seat behind us, nestled against his pillow, within arm’s reach, nothing but two surgical masks between us, my heart slowed to a life-sustaining saunter.

synagogue choir, ala YouTube

the holiest part of the night — the part i will never forget — was speeding through the countryside, as the sun dropped low and the stars turned on, and the holiest of jewish holy days, yom kippur, the day of atonement, commenced. in all my husband’s six-plus decades he has never been behind the wheel on yom kippur, a day of reverent prayer and fasting. but ferrying a sick kid to safety suspends the rules — at least the rule about not driving, and so we drove unfettered. and because it’s the year of COVID and all is already upside down, and because we live in the iPhone age and you can dial in from wherever you are, i zoomed into our synagogue’s Kol Nidre service, and the minor-key chords of the cello filled the wagon — and my soul — as the highway rose and dipped, and the field of stars felt so close i might have rolled down the window and grabbed one. i can’t remember feeling so wrapped in heaven’s prayer shawl.

monday morning, as i tiptoed past my sweet boy’s bedroom door, a room all but untouched since summer’s end, a room that’s echoed silence all these weeks, i heard the stuffed-up gurgle of his breathing, and declared it the most soothing sound i could imagine. it’s hard-wiring, i suppose: a mama is best suited to hear in real time her child’s strains, especially when they’re the ones of any sort of struggle. long-distance, sometimes, feels impossible, and wholly against our mama grain.

before the morning ended, we’d checked in to our local emergency room, where they plied the kid with more IVs and megadoses of tylenol. once again, COVID negative, thank god. it’s mono, off the charts.

so here we are, at the end of week two, with another trip to the doctor this morning, and no end in sight (though i know the cure will come, a knowing i do not take for granted).

all i truly know is that i can’t imagine not being the one to be sliding batches of bread pudding in the oven, the sweet scent of cinnamon and eggs and milk — the original nursery-maid’s confection and cure-all — trailing up the stairs and round the bend. nor being the one who’s keeping track of when he’s swallowing which of the five prescriptions now lined up like amber-bottled soldiers on the kitchen counter. nor the one who’s but a few feet away, peeking at his laptop, as he delights in the latest episode of “the british baking show” (his sure-to-soothe show of choice) during the rare few hours when he’s not sound asleep.

there are numbered truths in life, and one of them is that sick, sick kids belong by their mama’s side. or maybe i’ve got that backwards. maybe it’s that mamas belong by the side of their sick, sick kids.

it’s inevitable. it’s imperative. and it’s most certainly a blessing.

just a simple tale, today, of what happened next. and a short consideration of the blessings of proximity when those we love are in some degree of distress. what makes you feel soothed when you are ailing, body or soul?

at heart, it’s survival

pickled lime soup.

survival soup: pickled lime, lemon grass, knobs of ginger root, garlic, chili pepper (photo by kalyanee mam)

in this moment of pandemic, amid news reports that make us sometimes want to plug our ears, amid barren calendar pages turned week after week, our everyday tasks are shifted. gone is the dashing here and there (and that’s a very fine thing). gone are the awful tugs and pulls, the guilt strings that tell us we should be doing X,Y, or Z. 

instead, it’s distilled to more of the essence: the few things that really do matter, the ones that matter all the more because all the distraction’s been whittled away. we’re left with essential. and essential is this: exercise your heart, your voluminous, many-chambered heart. use it for its highest purest purpose. use it to love. use it to survive. use it for survival, plain and not so simple. 

or, as my online-college kid put it last night, as he pounded out one of his pile of end-of-semester papers: “corona mom, keep your boys safe. and sane.” (the emphasis on that second sentence, the way he emphatically tacked it onto the first, made it clear that that’s every bit of my job these red-ringed-dodging days. and i couldn’t take it more certainly to heart.)

i’d been thinking a bit about how–in between hours of proofing and re-proofing pages for a new book–my corona days have boiled down to a whole lot of caretaking. how hunting and gathering inform my weekly rhythms (primarily in the form of my hazmat-outfitted grocery-store runs). how feeding is hardly an afterthought. how each night i’m taking time to plot out some serious semblance of dinner, even if, like last night, tearing open bags from the freezer is part of the equation, and it’s hardly all scratch cooking. (though there are days when simmering pots on the stove are as close to incantation as a kitchen might be.) how spritzing pillow cases with lavender water, how scrubbing out the bathtub and sink, how all of it feels essential, verging on straight-up survival. yes, even the scrubbing.

and then, of course, there are the interludes when i’m plopped on the side of someone’s bed, rubbing little circles on someone’s weary forehead. or putting aside those pages of proofs when someone asks, “can you help me with this grilled cheese?”

it is all a part of essential. especially, emphatically, now.

and then i read an essay from a brilliant filmmaker (and lawyer), kalyanee mam, once a cambodian refugee, born during the god-awful khmer rouge regime, one of seven children whose early years were spent in a work camp, before her family escaped through jungle and landmines to a refugee camp on the thai-cambodian border. during the years of the khmer rouge, mam writes that her mother sustained her brood with umami soups, chicken rice, and fried noodles. and that template of nourish-to-survive is the one to which mam has turned in these corona times. she writes:

During these past weeks, I’ve thrown myself into the role of caregiver, as my mother once did. As I soak and sprout beans and rice, chop onions, carrots, and celery, mince and sauté garlic, knead dough, and bake bread, I am finding certainty, meaning, and purpose in preparing and sharing food and conversation with family, friends, and neighbors. In taking care of my loved ones and making sure they are fed, nourished, healthy, and well, I am also being fed. Time has stopped and nothing feels more important.

nothing feels more important.

it’s not every day that we realize that tending to the domesticities of our lives matters at all. most of the time, in the days before corona, that was the almost-disregarded part of what some of us did. those were the chores. the necessities. but maybe, somewhere along the way, we’d come to misunderstand necessity, confused it for meaningless. when, in fact, it’s everything but.

or, as kalyanee mam put it:

care and love are not luxuries: they are necessities, the essence of all life and our survival. in the worst of times and in the face of adversity, care thrives….when our basic human needs are threatened, including our need for certainty, meaning, and purpose, caring emerges to inform us that we are not alone. 

it’s this instinct to care, to take care, to make care, that might make all the difference. that might be the essence of why we’re here at all.

in pondering caring, and what it means to take care, mam writes of the anthropologist margaret mead and her idea of the first sign of civilization. it’s an insight mead long ago revealed in a lecture, and it was retold in a book by the eminent surgeon dr. paul brand, titled, the gift of pain. the revelation, and brand’s take on its meaning, unfolded like this:

“What would you say is the earliest sign of civilization?” Mead asked, naming a few options. A clay pot? Tools made of iron? The first domesticated plants? “These are all early signs,” she continued, “but here is what I believe to be evidence of the earliest true civilization.”

High above her head she held a human femur, the largest bone in the leg, and pointed to a grossly thickened area where the bone had fractured and solidly healed.

“Such signs of healing are never found among the remains of the earliest, fiercest societies. In their skeletons we find violence: a rib pierced by an arrow, a skull crushed by a club. But this healed bone shows that someone must have cared for the injured person—hunted on his behalf, brought him food, served him at personal sacrifice.”

With Margaret Mead, I believe that this quality of shared pain is central to what it means to be a human being.… And the presence of a caring person can have an actual, measurable effect on pain and on healing.

“civilization,” mam concludes, “begins with care.”

and so, we are, all of us, called to care, to share the pain of those we love. to exercise that glorious vessel, the heart. the one anointed and appointed to love and love lavishly. to love as we would be loved. to love as if there’s not a tomorrow. to love with all the urgency of now. as if it might keep us alive. because, truly, it might.

and with that, may your mothering day — a day for all who mother, who care, who love tenderly and fiercely and without end — may it be blessed.

your thoughts on taking care, on the exercise of the heart, and the necessity of love and survival? in any time, but especially now?

opening doors…(life on the lookout for light)

always open door

any hour now, the house next door, a house where an old man of 92 has lived alone for a few years, a house the old man has been trying to sell for months and months (with not a single offer), a house where just a few weeks ago the old man told me he feels as if he’s gone before a judge and been sentenced to life in jail only the jail is his home, that house will have some bustle today.

two women will be pulling cans and boxes and thingamajigs from shelves in the cupboards. not because the old man is moving out finally. but because an old friend is moving in. an old friend of mine. a friend i knew to be needing a place to live. a rich and wonderful friend who for a host of reasons is in between houses. and desperately needing a place to call home, a place where she can breathe, and look out the windows at sunlight. or snowflakes. or dawn.

after a week or two of nearly comical round-about “talks,” the two of them have reached a deal that already hints of heart more than wallet. she will be renting what amounts to an upstairs suite, two roomy bedrooms, a bathroom, and closets. he will be gaining the comfort of footsteps up above, the rustling in the kitchen as she whips up one of her amazing effortless feasts.

and that’s not all: my friend drives a car, and the old man next door — his name is george, and i don’t think he’d mind my using it — he lost his old white oldsmobile last summer when it got crunched by another car. george escaped with bumps and bruises, but the lasting blow was the car got towed away, and taken away — for good. as part of “the deal,” my dear friend will be, among many things, george’s newfound wheels. she will drive to the market when he cobbles a list (long a fellow who marketed for himself on the fly, an ad-libber of marketing, he claims to be not so good at list-making and, at 92, is intent on teaching himself this new skill). she will drive him to the doctor. and, as seems to happen every once in a while, she’ll give him a lift to the emergency room.

but here’s the thing about that last point in particular: just a week or two ago, i was sitting with george on a day he’d woken up dizzy. i’d run over after he called, a scene that unfolds not infrequently, and was perched beside him in a hard metal folding chair (he’s cleared the house of nearly every piece of furniture, the saga of trying for months to sell a house that won’t budge), when he told me in something of a whisper that, really, he thought the chest pains and shortness of breath might just be from the stress of living alone, of not being able to sell this house that he loved, a house he built for his beloved late wife who for years and years struggled to breathe, a house he’d filled with countless “upgrades” to make her breathing easier, to make it easier for nurses to come and to go. a house he didn’t want to sell at a bargain-basement price. to george, that feels like an insult. an insult to himself, yes, but more so a slap at the memory of his most beloved wife (in the great room of his house, the only room still with furniture, there are exactly four items: a recliner chair, a metal tv tray table, a big screen tv, and a faded picture of his late wife hanging from the wall). it’s his unwillingness to settle for what he considers an unconscionable price that has shoved him into this jail-cell of a situation, and how he’s come to spend months and months alone in that house, and now months and months without a car, or a way to get around. and all the while the pains in his chest have gotten worse and worse. and the dizziness comes and goes.

and as i sat there listening, wishing like anything i could figure out how to lift his burden, it dawned on me that maybe there was an outside chance of a way.

my old friend had just moved out of her own longtime house into a rented room, a tight-squeezed room in a townhouse where a little dog (not hers) had free rein and hospital pads were scattered about the floors in case the wee dog hadn’t time to do his business outside. even though i knew she’d just unpacked boxes and boxes, even though i knew she’d just signed off on the first month’s rent, i could see the light in her eyes was dimming. i was haunted long after i drove away and left her to squeeze a few files onto her makeshift desk.

it dawned on me that maybe, just maybe, my two old friends — one a friend by accident of geography, the other a friend who’s been something of an auntie to my boys, and a lifesaver to me — could make a quirky equation, could be each other’s short-term solution. so i spoke up. i mentioned first to my friend my quirky idea. she paused and considered. then i brought it up to george’s daughter, the one who’s been slumped under the weight of her papa’s affairs, and driving countless miles from her house to his many times a week, and often at the drop of a dime. she too saw the possibility. so i wandered over and asked george myself.

and by the middle of next week the upstairs room with the light that has barely shone in all these years, it will be glowing above the garage. it will be glowing down onto the picket fence that runs between my house and george’s — and, for now, hers, too. my old friend will have a whole upstairs all to herself. she’ll have shelves and shelves for her books. and sunlight or moonlight pouring through the tall, tall windows.

george will have the comfort and joy of being not alone. already, i’ve been told, he pokes his head round the corner when my friend is there (figuring out what will go where), asks if she’d like him to make her a cocoa. (see what i mean about this being more heart than wallet?)

it’s a happy ending in the making, i’m certain. i feel it in my bones. and not because i will now have a dear friend next door, one with whom i can share old new yorkers, and whatever i’ve whipped up for dinner. but because in this old cold world there still exists the possibility of kooky solutions, and hearts can be pulled together tighter than any wallet or real-estate guide might suggest. fact is, the two of ’em — george and my friend — both happen to be among the dearest souls on the planet, and right now both are in tight pinches that neither one deserves.

it all reminds me that we live, all of us do, on the thin membrane of possibility day after day after day. our charge, if we take it, is to live and breathe the belief that 1 + 1 just might = 3, to know that love and light is just beneath the surface, aching for a soft spot, a place to break through.

despite what the naysayers insist, we do not dwell in a zero-sum world. my gain is not your loss, nor vice versa. if we decide to live a life of looking for doors that might be opened, dots connected, threads interwoven, if we believe in looking up and looking out for the other guy’s sweet victory and triumph, well, then isn’t the world one stitched by generosity and not stinginess? isn’t that the way we all win? and doesn’t that tip the globe in the direction of light not shadow?

it’s always boggled me, and heavied my heart, to know that this is not the way of the world. but we can make it be. we can spend our days on the lookout. on the lookout for love, for light. for the arithmetic of unlikely sums.

welcome to the neighborhood, sweet friend. xoxox

do you have a tale of doors being opened, and love rushing through?

when chill, er, arctic winds blow…

with all its might that mercury is push-push-pushing, trying with every ounce of january muscle to get up to where the one meets the zero, calls itself a brisk ten above.

even the rhododendron leaves, just outside my window, are curled tight into a rod, curled as if their life depends upon it, which in fact it does.

the feathered traffic at the feeder is slow to none, and, mostly, sparrow shiver in the pines. i think they’d like to call for carry-in, or better yet delivery. but the lines, i fear, are iced.

the morning when the world is frozen is a morning when you’d prefer, perhaps, to catch the nearest plane to tahiti. but, dang, that would entail walking to the curb–at least–to catch the taxicab.

so instead, why not do what i love best, and make yourself a list. a list is a beautiful thing. a romantic thing. you sketch your hopes and dreams. tick them off in little snippets. barely even have to finish your thought. you know what you mean. it’s you, for cryin’ out loud, making that there list.

so, then, with no ado–it’s too cold for adoing–here is the way i’d like to spend a ch-ch-chilly day at the end of a long, long, long, long week:

*crank the brand-new tunes my manchild made for me, the soundtrack, perhaps, from “once,” the movie a dear old friend told me months ago would inspire me. he was right. and now i can’t stop mumbling with all the words, my own odd version of pretending i too can sing along. which i can’t. just ask my boys. even the cat took to under the bed.

*fill the troughs, pour hot water into bowls for all the critters. there is nothing so satisfying–for this faux farmer girl–as making sure that all God’s creatures are duly fed and watered. i’d distribute little blankets if i could, but instead i put out extra christmas trees so they could harbor in the branches. more real estate, the better for those birds, way i figure it.

*grab the mcdonald’s coupon books, and drive to where it’s dark and even colder. pass out books to every hungry hand that reaches your direction. give the folks on lower wacker drive a place, and means, for getting in and out from this coldest cold. God bless my mama who gave me those books for just this purpose. God bless the soul who inspired her, whose story we found out only when he died, how he spent his winters doling out hundreds of dollars in vouchers for a hamburger and fries, and a hot, hot coffee that bought a seat where heat was all but guaranteed.

*once back home, grind the beans and get your own hot coffee going. stoke the steel-cut oats, while you’re at it, too. i’ve got the grandest formula these days: scottish steel-cut oats, 1/4 cup; water, 1 cup; sprinkle of salt (don’t ask me why, all i know is it works); flaxseed, 2 tsps.; sprinkling organic raisins, cranberries, apricot, chopped; 1 walnut, 1 almond, chopped; dry milk, 1/3 cup; cinnamon, a good stiff shake or three. now, get the water and the salt a bubblin’, stir and dump the oats, then all the rest. let it simmer half an hour. dump it in your favorite bowl (mine is red with fat white stripe), grab a porridge spoon (mine is wooden, and it sailed in from old vermont). take a seat at the kitchen table, staring out at birds, who might be staring back at you. invite them in, for heaven’s sake. they might love the porridge.

*whisper benediction for the oats, the birds, and all the souls far colder than you have ever been. pray to God that warmth blows in, deep and boldly to their souls. don’t let them die, God, frozen to the city’s underbelly.

*and, besides all that, the best idea for how i’d like to spend an arctic day is invite a house full of folks i love. cook all day the day before, and fill the vases with blooms galore. stack the logs to make a fire. putter here and there, making it a house that shines, and shouts: warmth dwells here. come in, come in. leave your cares outside, where chill winds won’t stop blowing.

peace i wish you at the end of this long week. and warm toes besides.

do you like lists as much as i do? what would you do on a chilly arctic day when the poor old mercury makes it up to 10, then dwindles back to less than zero?

red alert

i didn’t notice the first day. and not really the second day. but, by the third day, the third bitter cold day in a row, the third day when the unfurling of scarlet as it darted from pine bough to naked magnolia was decidedly absent, i started to worry.

now, worrying, in case you don’t know, is something i do exceedingly well. comes naturally. like breathing, only in staccato. only in spending the morning with an eye out the window, watching, combing the sky and the branches. on fullest alert.

as i watched without reason to hope, as i thought of the bitterest cold, i remembered the words of my mama telling me how so many birds from her flock had been lost, in the deep snap of cold.

“couldn’t survive,” she declared in that way that she does, unspooling for all of her nestlings all the mysteries of nature, of life and of death. she seems to know things that come from a long life of breathing in sync with the birds and the woods and the clouds.

and so, as the image of a little red bird, fallen somewhere, on the unforgiving crust of the snow, made the hairs on my neck rise, i thought of climbing in boots, commencing a search. imagined the crunch through the snow, pulling back branches, poking through all of the grasses, now frozen and matted and frankly quite knotted, that i’d left in the yard for the winter, for the birds who might savor their seed, or their harbor, on a day not too cold to put wind to their wings.

then i thought of the hawk. the great cooper’s hawk, the one with the tail so big and so thick i once mistook it for an owl–and that was merely the tail. add the head and the wings and the muscle-bound chest under all of those feathers and you’ve got a bird you should fear.

and fear it they do, all my fine feathered friends. one mere swoop of the hawk through the sky, clears all of the branches of birds. they scatter, i swear, when that hawk is a mile away. they know, before i see a thing, that death in the clutches of indiscriminate beak, or in talons the size of a three-penny nail, is a death to avoid.

and then, always, there is the cat. the cat that i feed twice a day. the cat who curls up on my lap, and purrs like a chevy with ’58 fins. that cat, i pretend, knows better than to touch a red bird. if that cat crosses that line, comes home with a dried bit of feathery red there where he does all his licking, that cat will be dispatched to the dungeon. and i like to think–though i’m sure i’m kidding myself–that he’s too tender-hearted to torment me so cruelly, to partake of papa the cardinal.

while all these horrible endings swirled in my head, i ached for the red bird–papa, i call him–who, whenever he darts through my day, brings me a deep knowing that i’ve been touched by a something divine.

i can be pouring a tall dose of coffee, there by my little side window, and, poof, there’s papa, his bright scarlet frock nestled right there in the bushes just inches away.

or, as i haul out the trash, or dash to an errand that should have been started nearly an hour before, there’s papa. cheer-cheering from top of the oak. or playing peek-a-boo in the pines.

wherever he comes, whenever he flashes his colors, my soul breathes a sigh that makes me feel wholly at home. he brings the divine down to the earthliest minute.

now, i know that a bird is not mine. these birds all around me belong to the heavens. and the trees they inhabit, just happen to be near to me and my four-walled nest.

but, over time, a particular possessiveness creeps in the equation. they are mine, i am theirs. together we do a fine dance. a dance i’m not willing to end.

and so, in the hours when i’d noticed his absence, when i raked all the limbs, when i scoured the ground, i felt the depth of that dance in my heart, realized the intricate wiring between me and my red-banner bird.

it is, perhaps, the shock of the color itself, heart-stopping, really, against the bleak gray of the winter undressed, or the white of the winter, fully attired.

it is that sign from above that amid the humdrum, the everyday, there comes, without warning, without siren, the scarlet cloak that whispers, “your day was just touched.”

it is hope when i need it, a charge when i’ll take it. it is, some lonely hours, as if the Holiest One is tapping there at my window, the answer to an unwhispered prayer.

and so it was, when, after three days that felt like three weeks, that flash once again caught me unawares. i was minding my business–i’d forgotten if only for a bit of a while that i needed to worry–when, suddenly, there at the feeder perched papa.

i moved close to the window, as close as i could without startling my too-long-gone friend. close enough to see his little heart pounding, there under the reddest of breasts. my heart pounded as well.

for a minute there, the other day, me and a bird from somewhere on high, we beat the same song with the whole of our hearts. papa was home, was safe, wasn’t buried, stiff in the snow.

his absence now over, i’ve not yet let go of the sense that i–and he–was saved from a terrible sorrow.

sometimes it takes a bit of a scare to remember how blessed we are.

sometimes we don’t feel the depth of a plug in our heart, until it is pulled. until there’s a hole and it’s gaping.

only then, sadly, do we realize that without that something we love, that something we count on, our breathing is not wholly ours. it depends on grace all around us. it depends on the touch under the sheets in the night, on the peck on the cheek in the doorway, or the flash of a wing in the branches.

the red bird out my window taught me that lesson this week. gentle bird, messenger bird. bird in heavenly red. bird that beckons attention.

have you seen a sign lately? a celestial sign? some sign from above that reminds you the earthliest truth? have you come to know, only too late, how deeply you miss some grace note you’d taken for granted? any one else feel a particular kinship to the reddest bird in these parts (save for the tanager who seems too scarce for everyday musings)?