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Tag: life lessons

when summer comes easy: things i wish i’d known

i was watching butter melt into a bath of milk and sugar and cinnamon when it dawned on me: there is something about this summer that there’s never been before. and it’s not just that the kid i love so much is leaving in less than 60 days, though that’s the thing that’s somehow at the root of it all.

watching butter pool across milk, apparently, is a stirring prompt for early-morning philosophizing, for checking one’s soul, and seizing a revelation or two. what i realized, as i whipped up blueberry bread pudding on a wednesday, no less, whipped it up simply because the kid i love loves bread pudding, loves it best in summer when the season’s rotund little berries the color of night are tossed in with abandon, is that somehow this summer’s defining watch word is easy, as in stripped of all the junk — my junk — that usually gets in the way.

easy as in not worrying. not worrying about the clock, or deadlines, or whether he’s home at the stroke of midnight or half an hour later. easy as in surrendering to the whims of the day, plopping onto the couch, finding his hand at the end of my fingers, wrapping mine around his, and then simply sitting there for enough innings to figure out who’s playing who, and who might be ahead, all the while weaving in the sorts of questions and curiosities that come in the lulls of lazy baseball.

i am, for this one short sweet summer, devoting my days and my nights to simply, softly, loving my kid. savoring every single thing about him. i am relishing as if there’s no tomorrow, because in some ways there isn’t. there really isn’t. except for the way tomorrow affords us the joy — the possibility — of trying all over again. each day another chance to love in the ways we hope and dream and know we can love.

i am, this short sweet summer, sinking deep and certainly into one and only one thing: mothering with all my heart. mothering without getting in my own worrisome way. (and truth truly be told, i’m mothering with all my heart because somewhere along the line it’s the one place in my life where i found my deepest wholest holiness, and i am not wanting to let that go…)

makes me think i sure wish i’d known to be this sort of mother at the other end of this equation, when i was just starting out, a quarter-century-plus ago. i remember how, back in the daze of a newborn living, breathing, squalling, hungry-like-clockwork baby, i armed myself with charts — breastfeeding charts and safety pins moved from bra strap to bra strap, my highly-evolved method for tracking which breast for how long, at what intervals — seeking solace in sharp-angled grids and penciled-in numbers. i steeled myself against the uncertainties and vicissitudes of toddlerhood by worrying about whether we were five minutes late to dump ourselves into the station wagon for the short drive to nursery school — as if someone at the schoolhouse door was doling out demerits — for the mothers who failed to make it on time. the soundtrack of my life was worry upon worry upon worry. no wonder firstborns wind up so crazily cross-wired.

i wish, some time before this very last summer of my very last kid (i know there are only two, and the way i phrase it it sounds like there’ve been a good half dozen), in these countdown weeks before he hauls off to college, i wish i’d realized how lovely it is to be, well, carefree. or as close as i’ll ever come, anyway. (someone once told me i was calm like a swan and after thinking, oh, honey, you sure don’t know me, i shot back, “yea, smooth on the surface, but paddling like heck underneath.”)

truth is, the credit for this newfound way of lazy-being goes to the kid himself. he’s intent on one thing this summer: savoring each and every hour of each and every day. savoring it even when he’s flipping burgers and shaking the baskets of fries for long hours at the short-order grill where he picks up a paycheck. savoring the nights with his toes buried in sand, the moon overhead, and the blankets around him filled with his gaggle of friends. savoring the long drives and deep conversations, the kinds best unspooled from behind the wheel, when two or three pile into the old sedan and clock miles up and down the leafy winding road that hugs the shoreline here in chicago. plopping himself on the bench where i sit at the kitchen table, stretching out his long-and-getting-longer legs, and idly clicking his phone while shooting me the occasional question. his mantra: gotta make the most of this. gotta love this summer.

and so i take my cues from the master. delighted to be tutored in the fine points of taking it slow. in savoring. in tossing aside the occasional heart-jabbing worry.

i am finding the succulence of summer. the succulence of mothering at its juiciest essence. i am letting the soft breeze blow across my bare toes. tossing out the to-do lists and time clocks. and making bread pudding on any old wednesday.

i am learning to summer — to mother — on the very last page of the chapter that ends just before one of us shoves off to college. if only i’d known all along.

how did you learn to savor — be it a season, or simply an hour? or is it something you’re still trying to learn? who have been your most unforgettable teachers, and what are the lessons they’ve taught?

p.s. because i didn’t want it to get lost in the shuffle, i posted yesterday (a rare thursday post) my latest chicago tribune review of a book for the soul, in this case, the glorious christine valters paintner’s dreaming of stones: poems, a glorious volume of which i wrote (in part): “Paintner is fluent in the lush language of earth and sky as well as the otherworldly, the mysterious beyond. Born and raised in New York City, she is old-soul Celtic, through and through. Her poems rise out of the monastic practice of dwelling in silence, and hers, often, is a churchless god. A god who can’t — and won’t — be confined. A god who belongs to any and all.” 

the marvel of the capacious soul

i’m convinced that one of the reasons we’re down here on this messy planet, this planet that sometimes feels overpopulated with goons and wise guys, is that on occasion, as we mill about among the masses and misfits, we run into the occasional breathtaking specimen from whom we will undoubtedly learn a thing or three.

i bumped into one this week, and once again i scribbled notes into my chunky fat notebook, the one titled, “how to be a better human. volume 61.”

the most accurate way to phrase it, quite honestly, would be to say that i didn’t so much as bump into him — he’s a time zone away, after all — but rather that this gorgeous soul pretty much flung himself onto the skinny little trail i was traipsing through the day. and it took all of a fraction of a second for me to read his words, feel the breath sucked straight out of my lungs (in that marveling sort of a way), and remember why oh why i’ve always adored him, and would like to be like him when i grow up.

he arrived, my old friend did, in an out-of-the-blue email, one announcing that he — whose wife had died just 10 days before, and whom we’d not seen in years and years — was jumping on a plane to chicago, where he and his wife had lived a couple decades ago, back when both of us were starting out in this experiment called “how to birth and raise a child.” we had all succumbed, his wife and i and our respective mates, at just about the same moment in history. they sped off to the birthing room first, and we followed fairly close behind. then, they sped again shortly after us, so we all spent a few years there cradling newborns, trading tales and names of pediatricians. in fact, the day the chicago tribune decided to unveil a room (more like a rehabbed closet) for “lactating reporters,” my friend’s wife and i showed up to pose for pictures with our little guzzlers well attached (clinging to our shoulders, people; all of us fully clothed and covered, merely suggesting that we young mothers might at some point put down notepads and plug into breast pump (i forsook the whole endeavor and worked from home, with nary a pump in sight)).

i digress.

back to this blessed friend who dropped in this week. he wrote this:

Hi guys,

Corey and I have sort of tumbled into a Chicago comfort trip. He’s there already, and I am flying out in a few hours.

It’s exceedingly last minute, but he and I would love to see as many of you as we can in a gathering of some design. I’ve been thinking brunch Saturday or Sunday, at a restaurant or (if one of you has the stomach for it) a home (I’d ecstatically cover the catering).

Let me float the idea of 10 am Saturday or Sunday. Other times will in truth be tougher (I’ll be doing things with/at the theater, etc.).

Maybe we can reply-all in order to see whether this might work?

I adore you all, and thank you for words and sustenance over months, weeks, and years.

Love,

(old friend)

i should mention that this old friend is a professor of shakespeare in new york city, and from the first day i met him he has used the english language in measures that far exceed just about anyone else i’ve ever known. he matches his eloquence with an effusion of the human spirit that is, frankly, a force of nature. something akin to sharing a room with a hurricane of most glorious refinement.

amid a world of ways of mourning, i was bowled over by this friend’s instinct to surround himself — immerse himself, really — with stories, tears, and laughter. to reach out for old, old friends. to throw himself onto a plane to shrink the distance, to not wait to lather himself in the healing balm, to quite emphatically wrap himself in the company of those who’d lived and breathed the chapters before cancer trod his heart, and stole his lifelong love.

it’s why capacious is the word that best fits his soul, his spirit, the magnitude of how he exercises love and life and full-throttle humanity. “having a lot of space inside; roomy,” the pocket OAD tells us. my friend is roomy, all right, and he makes room for the whole whirling wild climate zone of grief and grieving.

i imagine that tomorrow morning, when my kitchen is filled with lox and bagels and stories tumbling atop stories, when the coffee flows endlessly and big bowls spill with the fattest sweetest berries i can find today, it will get messy. there will be rivers of tears. and once or twice someone might laugh so hard they’ll spit strawberry across the table. i’ve been around enough grief to know it’s uncharted.

what i’ve not often seen, and what i love and what finds me marveling, is this old friend’s willingness to plunge right in, to immerse himself in the anguish and the joys that old friends know by heart. almost none of us witnessed up close the past few years of surgery and chemo and the inevitable dying, but we were all there for the thick of what came before — the births, the strollers, the raucous Shabbat dinners, the summer sunsets from their rooftop terrace.

and we have stories in which to wrap him, and tears to bathe his broken heart, and great good laughter on which to lift and carry him.

from deep inside his fog of pain and loss and rudderlessness, he thrust out a hand, and called on an old unbroken circle of the heart. we will hold a shiva here tomorrow. and there will be prayer in the form of story. and the wailing and gnashing of teeth will be shared in the company of those who remember well the days long before the whiff of cancer slid into the room, and took away our old friend’s truest deepest love.

may his capacious ways remind me to never shrink from the confines of the soul so blessedly breathed into each of us at the moment we were first imagined, and sent forth to fill this planet…..

who are some of the ones in your life who teach you how to be? and in what form have some of those lasting lessons come? 

fatherprayer

in which we turn our attention to mothering’s essential compatriot…

it’s become something of a ribbing in this old house. the one who sits across the table from me most nights at dinner, he delights in jiving that he too will pen a deeply intimate account of his side of the domestic story, and he will title it fatherprayer: (subtitle not yet revealed).

it’s a play, of course, on the title of the deeply intimate account of navigating the undulations of mothering that i wrote. the one called motherprayer: lessons in loving. for months now, especially when one lovely reviewer wrote that he barely hovered at the margins (because we have an unspoken pact that i won’t spill ink on his private realm), he’s been itching to tell his version of the tales, my architectural maven whose natural landscape — in the writerly realm — is to size up towers tall or squat, to write with unswerving authority about the public square, whereas my realm is the quieter, tucked-away terrain, the one that unfolds on bed pillows and beside the old cookstove.

while i will leave unpenned his rendition of the homefront (should he ever decide to traipse into the personal), i will encroach only far enough here this morning to offer my own version of a tribute to his indispensable fathering of our two beloved boys — and to consider the role of these men in the care and feeding of our children.

i’m blessed — beyond words — that the father of my children has stuck around all these years. i don’t take that for granted, not when i know and love women for whom that hasn’t happened, through no commission of their own. i watch friends i love shoulder every blessed dilemma and decision, from the kid at college with debilitating strep, to how to scrounge to pay the monthly rent.

the truth is, around here, we both came from houses where forever meant forever. so the occasional rough patch was met not with searching for nearest exit, but knowing we’d stay at it till we found our common ground. i’d be a fool — or big fat liar — if i pretended we’d not hit such skids along the way. it’s been nearly 26 years, after all, and we’re human, and somewhere along the way — in a world where work and home are tenuously balanced at best — there’s bound to be the chapter where one feels pushed aside, while the other shakes his head. or one parent’s idea about the wisest way to steer a kid is pretty much foreign to the other.

but this is not an ode to long-lived marriage (though that’s fertile ground that some day i could be convinced to take on…), so i’ll leave that there, and move on to fathering, and the miracles i’ve witnessed from front row.

the first clue i ever had that the man i married would be quite fine in the fathering department was, i suppose, when i met his own father — the dearest man, a gentle man, a man who could — and did — sit for hours at the Shabbat table (always positioned near the challah, or braided bread, which he’d tear off in little nibbles to punctuate his stories) telling tales, absorbing long answers to well-placed questions. he was a journalist, after all, an editor, and he was fluent in the art of asking and answering questions. the famous tale about my husband’s father is that in the raw first days after he sent his first-born and only son off to college, he was so distraught he whiled away the hours hosing out the garbage cans for days on end, in hopes of keeping his mind off how much he missed the kid. and he sat down and penned a letter — ink on paper — every single day, straight through to thanksgiving of his son’s freshman year, when the kid pulled his father aside, and whispered that maybe he could stop now, the kids in the dorm had caught on to the daily paternal letter-writing. and it was getting a little, um, embarrassing.

the second clue came not too many weeks before our firstborn was born, when, one night before sleep, the father of said child said, out of nowhere, “you’re not gonna recognize me; i’m going to turn to mush.”

and so he did. he cradled that baby as if the whole of the universe rested in his arms, as if one wrong move might crack off a limb or send the little bundle spilling to the floor. every night, when we’d stroll to the el station to greet him after the long day he’d been away, you’d have thought he was welcoming the president of france (or frank lloyd wright, more fittingly) to his company. the poor kid would be smothered in kisses, and questions — even at two-months-old.

if you asked our boys to tick off the top three words that come to mind, they might reel off these: cautious. devoted. old-fashioned in the dearest way.

i might say the same — after all, we’ve all been keeping watch on the very same subject, all three of us from particular vantage points.

i know there are papas aplenty devoted to their children, but in this house, before my very eyes, i’ve watched that word take on layers and layers of truth the likes of which i’d never before witnessed. yes, he’s unswerving when it comes to a few fine truths — no driving on the highway till you’ve proven mastery of side streets and stop signs; no taking cabs home from the airport (at any hour of the day or night) when your papa can just as certainly be waiting for you at the baggage claim — but the core of all of that is how deeply seriously he takes his job as being No. 1 protector of his boys, and all of those he loves.

if my boys have a moral core — oh, they do! — it comes in large measure from their papa, who lives by a code indelibly inscribed, one weighed in the pages of ancient text, one from which there is no dilution. we’ve all witnessed him going to the mat for a principle he believes in (note: see trump v. kamin, a battle spelled out in too-tall, too-showy alphabet letters). but, here in the confines of home sweet home, i’ve watched him insist it’s no big deal to drive 15 hours to watch three minutes of a crew race because no kid should be without cheering squad, even in the B boat of a novice squad for a race they didn’t win. i’ve seen him take a train to a cab to a far-flung soccer field — in a snowstorm, mind you — abiding by the very same 90-percent-of-life-is-showing-up principle.

because he’s a fellow with a predilection for holey T-shirts and shorts a size too big, we rib him fairly endlessly (in part because we take seriously our job to keeper our prize-winner duly humble; but too because he is such a darn good sport, and the basso-profundo of his belly laugh could warm the coldest bone in this old house).

but here’s the undying truth: we know deeply and certainly that he’s a prize beyond all measure. and we’ve two boys who’ve grown up — and grow still — knowing their papa would be there for them upside, downside, no matter what life throws at them. he’s their first and last defense. and no one, nor anything, could get between those boys and the ever-faithful heart of the papa who loves them endlessly and without measure.

happy blessed father’s day, to all who’ve been so blessed.

xoxoxo

what lessons in loving did you learn from your papa? 

among the inanities of life, a knock at the door will anchor you firmly

tasha favorite page.jpg

sometimes it sneaks up behind you. sometimes you find yourself pulling into a narrow driveway, squeezing between tall brick pillars, praying the next sound you hear won’t be the sides of your wagon scraping harsh against brick.

sometimes you are quietly tiptoeing about someone’s front porch, tucking a fat bunch of tulips into a watering can by the door. and as you are bent, your spine a curve of surrender, the door clicks. you look up, and there is your friend, a not-so-old friend, but a friend who these days is navigating through some of the narrowest straits known to humankind. he found out just three months ago that his lungs harbor a “niche” cancer (that’s what he called it, meaning a rare and intricate one, one at the distant edges of medical mapping).

he invites you in. and only because you’re worried about the draft blowing in, the draft of this chilly may afternoon, you do as you’re told.

when standing face-to-face with someone new to the trials of cancer, all else falls away. the words that are spoken carry a weight and a glistening that propels them clear past the usual folderol and fluff of everyday talk. the words come and go from a nuclear core at the heart of human existence.

my friend wasted no time, when i asked, in telling me that the day before, a day of multiple scans and long hours of cell-slaying drugs, he’d walked into the medical center wrought with despair. he’d been imagining the words, “i’m sorry, best to just go home,” over and over again in his head, certain he’d be told that progress was naught, and hope had run out. i felt the weight of his words, of his truth. i felt the trembling; we shared it in that instant, in that way that words, that story, can draw us into the same shared cell.

but then, he said, his face breaking into pure joy, he heard words he’d never imagined: “they were elated,” he told me. “elated,” he said once again, as if to grind in that truth, the one he’d never expected. the cell slayers were doing their job. hope had rushed into the hollows.

he stood there, a man with not a hair, nor an eyelash or brow, beaming a radiant glow. the front hall, not a minute before filled with a draft and a chill, was suddenly swirling with warmth.

i stayed but a few minutes longer. long enough for a hug and a nod to the little kindnesses that carry all of us through the unmoored passages of our lives, the ones when the walls close in, and the darkness comes, and each and every breath is defiance, is courage with air.

all in all it was but a 10-minute pause in my day. but it jostled the whole of it — and the days before and likely many days after — into fine-grained focus.

suddenly, all the tangles and hassles, the computer on the fritz, the rushing and dashing, the too many things to squeeze in a day, they all fell away. shrank back to size.

none of them matter. not really.

and even though we know those things, know them with every bone in our wobbly old bodies, we forget. too too often.

sometimes, we need to stand in a hallway, face to face with a man who quite frankly tells us he feared for the worst, stared despair in the face, and heard the words he’d least expected to hear: here’s hope. it’s yours to keep. now, go forth. and spread the gospel.

you never know who might show up on your stoop. in deep need of the lesson you’re living today.

and that’s my humble tale of the week. what life lessons did you encounter this week, the ones that plant you solidly in your boots? 

the picture above is in honor of this being children’s book week, and this is the page, drawn and water-colored by tasha tudor, that informed the whole of my childhood, that drew me in and never let me go, the doorway to a land of enchantment that was my home of all homes. and since i didn’t take a picture while tucking tulips into a watering can on the front stoop of my friend, i decided to share the enchantment. i once wrote a little bit about this page, in an ode to dear tasha, the morning after i found out that she’d died. i remembered this was children’s book week because my dear friend amy told me. and she wrote a beautiful ode to her favorite childhood book, which you can find here on her breathtaking blog.

may yours be a lovely blessed week. xoxox

after the eulogies: the hard part of being human

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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?

life: the one-time offer

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wise souls have been preaching it, teaching it, imploring, beseeching, practically gluing the words onto billboards tucked by the sides of the busiest highways: “this is your one short life. don’t waste it.”

the original disappearing act; with every day lived your sum is shortened. a beginning with built-in end.

we bow our head, nod along, swear out loud we’ve gotten the message: we’re paying attention.

and then, in the hum and the thrum of empty refrigerator shelves, and school buses that rolled to the corner before you had your shoes tied, in the numbing blurring cacophony of laundry piles, and deadlines, and forms that must be signed and scanned and sent back whence they came, we watch all our promises flitter away, like so many dried paper flakes, antiqued and yellowed and lost over time.

but then, we wake up one monday morning, and we find these words from a friend:

“I have learned one thing that I want to emphasize more strongly than I typically do: Your whole life can change in a moment. One phone call out of the blue, one consult from the doctor, one misjudged stoplight, one thoughtless word, one head turned in the wrong direction and boom. Life as you knew it will never be the same. I know this and I am living it right now.

“So this is my advice:

“If you are sleepwalking through your life wake up, before the universe does it for you.

“If you are unhappy, figure out why, and put together a plan to change the circumstances causing it.”*

she goes on. brilliantly. and her words shook me to my core. sobered me. so sobered me.

because they slipped right into the crack in my heart that had been wedged wide open. opened because just the day before i’d been sitting at the foot of the couch on which a dear and deeply beloved friend was draped, under blankets, her head propped on pillows. her eyes as animated as they’ve ever been. even though she was recovering from brain surgery. even though she’d gotten news just the week before, news of the sort that does one of two things: crumples you into a ball, or rocket-blasts you into the clearest-eyed vision you’ve ever seen.

my friend went with the latter. she said, as we sat at her feet, that the whole reel of her life had been passing before her eyes, and she’d spent the weekend telling her beautiful children the few things she wanted them always to know. “i was making pronouncements,” she said, making it sound like she was some sort of moses on the mountaintop, bellowing into the lungs, and the hearts, of her kids the few short prescriptions she held for living a deep and meaningful life.

the sorts of words you might whisper as you watch your little girl, suddenly grown and deeply beautiful, slide into her bridal gown. the sorts of things you’d want to say as you cradled your just-born grand baby for the very first time. the very words that would spill from your lips as you watched your firstborn, or your last-born, walk across a stage at graduation. or, perhaps, the sorts of things you might say when you’re simply chopping carrots, side by side on an ordinary tuesday. or as you sit under a star-stitched sky, wondering, wishing, weaving the night with whatever it is that rises up from your heart.

my friend didn’t know anymore if she’d be there, for moments so big or so small. she didn’t know if  she’d make it to those times when you squeeze the hand of someone you love, and proclaim the scant few words that say everything, when each little word is the vessel for volumes: i love you. i am so proud of this flight that you’ve taken, the way you’ve spread your wings, seized the moment, believed in the possible, fought for what’s right and what’s good. i’m so blessed by the whole of who you are. stay steady. go with God. do not surrender.

and then, after that sunday at the foot of my friend’s couch, where she covered the still-raw scar at the back of her head in her brown-hooded sweatshirt, came monday, and the words up above from my friend:

“If you are sleepwalking through your life wake up, before the universe does it for you.”

and then tuesday, late tuesday, came word of another friend. another friend who’d been wheeled into another surgery. the news from that surgery was the sort that wakes up the sleepwalkers. the sort that rattles you, and leaves you gasping for breath. the sort you never expected to hear, or to read as it trickled in in an email, one of those emails sent to a small circle of friends. and you sit there staring at your computer, reading the words over and over. because tears are clouding your eyes.

and so all week, all i could think about was how the universe is hellbent on waking us up. and we’d do best to pay attention. long-lasting attention.

because friends whom you’ve known forever and ever it seems — friends whose newborn babies you’ve cradled, friends whose weddings you’ve danced at, friends whom you’ve held as they buried their mother or their lover, as they’ve struggled to glue back together their own broken hearts, friends you only ever thought of as invincible and unbreakable — those friends are facing the climb of a lifetime. climbs that involve hope upon hope. and unending faith.

and you can’t help but wonder why the universe thinks you need to hear it in double-time. and why, maybe, please, they couldn’t both be spared all the suffering.

and then, because life is ever mysterious and always breath-taking, you stumble across lines in a book you just happen to be reading for work. lines like these:

“teach us to number our days,” cried the psalmist. “that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”

or, saint augustine: “it is only in the face of death that man’s self is born.”

or annie dillard: “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

and so you pull your weary and broken self off the couch. you rise to the occasion, the occasion called life. you cook and you freeze for your friend. you notice the snowflake tumbling. you fall asleep counting the mercies and wonders the day brought to you. you climb the stairs one more time when your little one calls to you, “mom, can you come talk?”

you live and you breathe, and you lift your friends’ struggles onto your shoulders. you vow to bend over the sickbeds suddenly before you, and moisten parched lips, and drink in pronouncements. you will fight for tight parking spots on the days when you drive them to hospitals. you will walk with those friends for as long as it takes.

and along the way you will make clear to the universe, and to the depths of your very own soul: these hours are precious, are sacred, and with all of my soul, i will fill each and every blessed one with the purest, clear-eyed attention to beauty and wisdom and all that is so deeply holy.

i promise. we promise.

with all of our hearts, amen.

just last night, as i was shuffling off to bed, i got a note from a dear friend of the chair, one whose tenderness is measured in part by the way she strolls the farmers’ market in summer filling bag after bag with organic lettuces and various greens for her decades-old hard-shelled friends, tortoises she’s tended for as long as 40 years (if not longer). and that dear friend, who also has tended lovingly to her aging papa, and to his rose bushes and his plot of home-grown tomatoes, she wrote to say that her papa had died this week. and so, for her, we send love, and deepest sympathies. as she wrote in her note: “it was the day i’d been dreading for 20 years.” 

for everyone — and the someones they love — who is suffering, or struggling, or desperately straining to stay afloat, we hold you up in light and in love. in prayer and petition without end.

* the beautiful wise words above came from my dear friend who writes the beautiful blog, “on the wings of the hummingbird.” the link to her post is above…..

a question hardly seems proper, but knowing it will unearth bounties of wisdom: what woke you from the sleepwalking?

love letter to the boy who said “yes!”

love letter to the boy who said yes

dispatch from 02139 (in which the second-to-last cambridge edition of the chair is turned over to the art of love-letter writing…)

dear T,

so here we are — you, me and the fat cat — counting down the days till we stuff said kitty in strappy black bag, sling him over our shoulder and board the big jet plane. soon as we’re strapped in our seatbelts, mr. pilot will turn that plane’s big bulbous nose toward where the sun sets, toward corn fields and great lakes and skyscrapers rising from the prairie. we’ll lift off, you, me and screeching cat (and hope that the whir of the plane drowns out the primal howl rising up from row 32, down yonder under the depths of seat E).

knowing us, we’ll squeeze our fingers tight ’round each other’s as the plane does that hiccup-y burp from runway to sky. knowing us, one of us will swipe away tears, big mama tears. it’s been a long wild ride, sweet boy, and i’m riding home snuggled beside you so we can both soak it all in, gulp after gulp after bottomless gulp.

you’ve been the intrepid scout on this voyage, my friend, and before we go, i just want you to know — here, in little typed letters that you often read in the glow of your itty-bitty screen after bedtime lights are supposed to be dark — that you are the hero, the brave warrior, the tenderheart, to whom we owe this year of thinking and living so deeply sumptuously.

when daddy first discovered that beckoning email in his in-box, some 18 months ago, the one where the nice man asked if he might consider coming to cambridge, daddy wrote right back, said, “gosh, thanks, but we can’t. we’ve a fifth grader who would never in a million years let us wrench him from his cozy little life.”

daddy was wrong, wasn’t he?

that very night at dinner, when we put the question to you, “T, what would you think of up and moving smack-dab in the middle of middle school?” you didn’t blink. just blurted: “sounds great! i need to see the world!”

we asked again and again, from every imaginable angle, prying around to see if a NO was lurking somewhere deep down inside: what about soccer? what about baseball? what about going to cooperstown? what about your non-stop gaggle of friends?

bing, bing, and bing. you never batted an eye. the answer from you, always from you, is yes, yes and yes.

i am not kidding, not one little bit, when i tell you the truth that you were the egg who wouldn’t take no for an answer. after years and years of mama eggs that wouldn’t do as we hoped and we prayed, there suddenly — against all odds and despite every medical book on the shelves — sprang from within, one blessed holy egg that only knew YES as the way.

mister yes, you turned into teddy. love of our life. swell in our hearts.

and never more than this year, as you took on cambridge with arms opened wide. and cambridge responded — emphatically, resoundingly — in kind.

watching you these past 10 months, watching you weather a belly-ache of a storm of the homesick blues, but then rebound, and rebound and rebound, has been the sweetest sweet on a long list of delicious.

i’ll never forget you bravely standing at the bus stop that very first morning, backpack slung over your shoulders, headed off — all on your own — to a school where you knew utterly no one.

wasn’t long till we were inviting over your delectable friends. and this saturday night, the living room rug will be wall-to-wall sleeping bags. your last goodbye to your united nations of buddies.

but that’s not all:

when you’d had your heart set on cambridge basketball, you were sick as a dog for 10 days on either side of the tryouts. once the fever was doused, you dragged yourself off the couch, tried out at the Y and played street ball straight through the blizzards of winter. wasn’t plan A in your playbook, but that didn’t bench you. you gave it your all; even twisted your ankle.

ditto, baseball — when you found out there were no spots in the big league, as cambridge baseball recruits early and often and doesn’t leave empty slots on the roster. again, you weathered your drooped heart, and forged on anyway. then, out of the blue, a coach up and called, and now you’re a brave. two, three nights a week, you’re out on the sandlot, under the lights, cracking the bat, snagging at line drives soaring straight at you. how fitting, my friend, that you’re number 1 — at least according to the fat white digit slapped on the back of your jersey. once again, you’re a walking-talking tale of determination, of not giving up when the cards are against you.

but it’s not just the hoops down by the river (where you play pickup with grad students from around the globe), not just the afterschool gym (where you’re the scrappy little white kid out with players who tower above you, who’ve taught you a jive and even a hustle).

i’ll not forget the afternoon you practically climbed on my lap to get an up-close read of our south african friend’s newspaper tale of the 1,841 steps it takes to fetch a bucket of water, two times a day, in the highlands bordering lesotho. or listening to our feminist muslim reporter friend tell her tales of marriage proposals from taliban chiefs, when she’s out in their tents gathering front-line stories. or our truth-teller friend from vietnam predicting he’ll be thrown in prison once he steps back into his homeland, the price of not spewing fiction; but he flies home anyway.

our prayer, daddy’s and mine, is that this year forever opens not only your eyes, but even wider your very big heart.

we want you to know, more than anything, that this is a world where even a drink of water comes with a heck of a toll in some corners of the world. we want you to think twice — or three or four times, at least — about how blessed you are that you had the two quarters — one for yourself, one for your very best friend who had none — when hot chocolate was served in the school cafeteria. we want you to remember the courts where the only shared language is the one bound inside the orange ball that soars through the hoops.

i know you’re ready to fly chicago way, to be back in your squishy red bean bag, to pedal your bike cambridge-style, any and everywhere. i know, too, that leaving these friends is not easy. that, if you could, you’d be a boy of two ZIP codes.

i’m mighty glad that i’ll have a front-row seat, at least for the next few years, on the unfolding of this year’s lessons deep in your heart. i’ve had my own sweet spots here. and daddy, we know, is filled to the brim.

more than anything, it’s all thanks to you, mister yes.

bless you mightily and always. yes, yes, and oh yes.

xox

we’re awash in moving boxes here in the aerie. we’ve just had a visit from new jersey grandma and grandpa; thank goodness they got here in the nick of time and we shared a few spectacular moments. before we dash, we’ve one last round with our beloveds from maine, who are planning to motor down on sunday. i’m barely able to sleep so excited am i to get back in my very own bed, and my creaky old house (where the hot water tap in the kitchen has decided to go kerpluey, but our trusty friend back home is deep on the case)…..there are folks here it breaks my heart to leave, but i’ll be back, i promise, 02139. one more post from the cobbled city, then it’s home to 60091… 

who in your life taught you the beauty of YES?

 

“by little and by little”: dorothy day, a guide to loving

dispatch from 02139 (in which, at long last, there is time in the day, here on the banks of the river charles, to take a few lessons from one of the 20th century’s modern spiritual pioneers and religious revolutionaries, dorothy day…)

if sabbatical has its roots in sabbath, to rest, to restore, then that is what pulled me, three months ago, to sign up for religion 1004, “modern spiritual pioneers and religious revolutionaries.”

i scanned across the list of saints whose lives we’d be studying — gandhi, martin luther king, thich nhat hahn, abraham joshua heschel — and i was hooked. i saw one more — dorothy day — and i was writing the professor begging to be allowed at the seminar table.

dorothy — for i don’t think she’d want me to call her ms. day; she’s not like that — has been my deep catholic hero for a long, long time. her brand of catholicism, the catholic worker movement founded, in part, on hospitality houses for the poor, the lost, the wholly left-to-the-margins, is the brand i still believe in.

i grew up, spent my holy years, in the 1960s.

stepped into my first dark confession box back in those turbulent days — just post vatican II, when the church was turned on its head, a year after JFK was assassinated, at the height of the escalation of the vietnam war — heard the opaque window slide open, heard the priest’s breathing, heard my own heart pounding as i scoured my soul, got ready to spill all my sins there on the ledge. tasted my first dry, wheat-y communion wafer. wondered what to do when it got stuck on the roof of my mouth.

and then, in seventh grade, it got really deep: we had a nun who’d stripped off her habit, who stood there in sweaters and skirts, strummed a guitar, and turned off the lights so we could watch — over and over — “the red balloon,” sing kumbaya. radical jesus — with his long curly hair and sandals, friend to the thieves and the whores — was a god made for the decade of protest, anti-establishment.

all along, i’d spent hours at bedtime, praying that i could be better come daybreak. be more of a saint. try harder. one lent, when i was in third grade, i think, i got up early, rode my bike to 7 o’clock mass every morning. because i thought it would make my soul shine brighter.

i never stopped trying.

and then, along came the likes of mother theresa and gandhi, and later, dorothy day.

they were my brand of catholic. they scooped souls out of gutters, touched the untouchables, turned away from the gilded altar cloths and the chalices locked away in a safe in the dark of the church.

they were what drew me to appalachia in college, what pulled me into a soup kitchen on the west side of chicago. they and my mother, truth be told.

but my mother has never written out her theology, just told me once, in a few short words (all i needed to hear really) that, after my father died, she figured she’d devote all the days of her life to God, and live a gospel of love. so she does, and i watch.

over the years, i’ve read snippets of the life of dorothy day. knew enough to call her my hero, claim her as my personal saint.

but i hadn’t taken the time to pore over her writings, to absorb the whole of her story — in her words.

and right now, because we’re at that part of the reading list, because for the next two weeks, on mondays at 4, i’ll be sitting at the seminar table in the great gray stone tower that is harvard divinity school, i am reading dorothy. curled up on the couch with her all yesterday afternoon, an afghan under my bare toes, a fat mug of tea and an orange fueling me along the way.

i read paragraphs that could change me forever. so, of course, i’m sharing them here. see if you, too, discover a trail to carry you through the rest of your days, even the days when we’re lost in the deep dark woods. (the italics, for emphasis below, are mine.)

“…she did not expect great things to happen overnight. she knew the slow pace, one foot at a time, by which change and new life comes. it was, in the phrase she repeated often, ‘by little and by little’ that we were saved. to live with the poor, to forgo luxury and privilege, to feed some people, to ‘visit the prisoner’ by going to jail — these were all small things. dorothy’s life was made up of such small things, chosen deliberately and repeated daily. it is interesting to note that her favorite saint was no great martyr or charismatic reformer, but therese of lisieux, a simple carmelite nun who died within the walls of an obscure cloister in normandy at the age of twenty-four. dorothy devoted an entire book to therese and her spirituality of “the little way.” st. therese indicated the path to holiness that lay within all our daily occupations. simply, it consisted of performing, in the presence and love of God, all the little things that make up our everyday life and contact with others. from therese, dorothy learned that any act of love might contribute to the balance of love in the world, any suffering endured in love might ease the burden of others; such was the mysterious bond within the body of Christ. we could only make use of the little things we possessed — the little faith, the little strength, the little courage. these were the loaves and fishes. we could only offer what we had, and pray that God would make the increase. it was all a matter of faith.”

— from “Dorothy Day: Selected Writings,” edited and with an introduction by Robert Ellsberg.

by little and by little.

now there’s a theology i can grasp, clench in my hot little fist.

we could only make use of the little things we possessed — the little faith, the little strength, the little courage.

these were the loaves and fishes.

we could only offer what we had, and pray that God would make the increase.

most days i don’t have much. but by little and by little, i can steady my wobbles, and put one foot forward.

i can try, with all my might, to live a life of love, by little and by little.

there is much this week to pray for, in the heartbreaking wake of hurricane sandy, who has left my beloved in-laws without heat or light or power on the jersey shore, who has turned my sister-in-law’s new york brownstone into a hospitality house for all those with nowhere to go. who spared us, and our sweethearts in maine. for all the heartbreak, up and down the eastern seaboard, i pray for repair and for strength, by little and by little. 

your thoughts on the wisdom of dorothy day? and if she’s not the one who guides your days, who is?

you never know the lessons you teach

bear with me. it might be worth it.

i had no intention of returning here to the pigeon man, but then i walked to my mail box the other day.

it’s not so common anymore for that little box down at the newspaper where i work to be filled with not just junk, but real live letters. oh, there are always a few, often rather sweet. but not like the one i got the other day, not really an epistle, a letter i keep coming back to, a letter i read and re-read because, on so many levels, it calls out to me.

it was written by a man who grew up not far from where the pigeon man–his real name is joe zeman, by the way–had his first newspaper stand. a little wooden shack, basically, at a busy downtown corner. that corner just happened to be near cabrini-green, the infamous public-housing project in chicago, where life could be, well, hellish.

gunshot was a sound that every child knew, knew to duck for cover when it came. elevators had long stopped working in the 15- to 18-story towers, so you ran for your life up stairwells that reeked of urine, or worse, and prayed you didn’t run into someone out looking for trouble.

the man who wrote the letter–his name is dwight taylor–was a kid there, lived there till he was 17, charged with armed robbery and murder, and went to jail. he sat in jail 11 months, he told me, till they finally let him out, not guilty after all.

here’s his letter, dated december 20, 2007:

hello barbara,

my name is dwight taylor. i am a product of the infamous cabrini green housing projects. in the mid 60’s, my friends and i used to walk east on division street to rush street to shine shoes. there was a shack on the northeast corner of the intersection of division & lasalle. a man would always stand outside of that shack and feed the pigeons. there were times we would make fun of that man.

as time progressed, we would walk past that shack and just speak and keep on walking. as i grew older, i began to realize the significance of the man on that corner. i began to think about what he was doing on that corner.

i recall him being swamped with pigeons on just about every part of his body. i then came to the realization that he was not only doing a service for God, he was doing something from his heart. i came to realize his heart was not the size of the average person.

considering the minimal love and affection i was receiving at home, he was a blessing in disguise. mr. zeman will never know what impact he had on my life. as you are probably aware, life in the projects is no joke.

the many times we walked past mr. zeman’s shack, he will never know i grew to really appreciate the presence of him. i began to appreciate the presence of him because of a deficit of love and understanding i never received at home. when i witnessed true love, compassion and generosity being exchanged between mr. zeman and his pigeons, i realized i was truly blessed that God directed me on that path on division street.

my sister called me thursday afternoon to inform me of his demise. when i logged onto your website [the tribune’s], i saw a man i hadn’t seen in many years. nevertheless, it was the same saint i remember many years ago on division & lasalle street.

he will be no stranger to the many wings where he is going. especially considering the many wings he had down here.

dwight taylor

gary, indiana

i called dwight the other day, told him i was deeply touched by his letter. asked if i could share it here, and with the letters to the editor at the tribune. i asked, too, a bit about his life today.

dwight is 52. he has four daughters, the oldest graduated from purdue university, the youngest is a sophomore at the university of notre dame. the middle two are in collge, too; one at indiana university, and the other at southern indiana university.

dwight says he’s had some financial troubles of late, so his email wasn’t working. said he’d graduated from technical school, worked at motorola, in the cellular division. but then, he said, he’d broken his neck in a freak accident–reaching for something up high on a shelf–and had to learn to walk again.

i asked if he was some kind of minister, or pastor, or whether he did some kind of preaching, because his letter sure read like that of someone who could pack a punch before the folks in the pews got one bit wiggly.

he laughed. said he gets asked that all the time. he’s not any kind of pastor, he said, just a man who says what he sees.

dwight’s story is sticking to me. like the best sort of shadow, it’s clinging all throughout the day, even through the weekend.

i couldn’t wait to let you read it too.

gives me goosebumps to think an old man cloaked in feathers could be a beacon of loving kindness to a kid growing up where love was scarce.

and that kid was smart enough to figure out just what the lesson was, and use it, a shaft of light on his murky trail, to escape what might have been.

but he didn’t stop there: he went on to live a life, and spew a brand of wisdom, that made me think he must have been a preacher, for the lesson he was teaching me.

you never know, sometimes, that you bumped into a teacher, until you realize, you just can’t shake the lesson.

dear mr. taylor, thank you oh so deeply. and mr. zeman, too. you’re quite a pair of wise ones, and you’ve shined a mighty light here on my ever-winding trail.

forgive me for a third take on the pigeon man. but i couldn’t not share the letter. i left it out all weekend for my boys to read. maybe in light of the few sad souls (on the tribune’s website last week) who found the pigeon stories worthy of the smallest thoughts, i found dwight’s letter so extraordinary. i am endlessly amazed by everyday saints, mr. taylor among them. your thoughts, friends.