pull up a chair

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

Tag: Mary Ellen Sullivan

the illuminating work of the modern-day manuscript

IMG_0011on the eve of the night before she died, she asked me to write her obituary. and then, a month later, after her brother had read her will, she tapped me on the shoulder (or he did for her, literally, in a jam-packed cafe after her memorial, when he came up from behind, leaned in and whispered the question that made my knees go weak); she asked me to be the custodian, the caretaker, of her creative work.

to peel back the tape from a dozen or so boxes and crates, to lift from layers of dust, old essays, typed and stapled, some typewritten the old-fashioned way, others spewed out from every iteration of computing in the late-20th century. another four years of 21st-century essays, dustlessly tucked away inside her sleek hulk of a computer, one that would be boxed and moved and plugged in at my house, where for weeks i couldn’t bear to click open folders, never knowing if i’d find cold, hard diagnostic reports, chemo spreadsheets, or an essay that would rip my heart out.

my job was to sift and sort, read and re-read, move from pile “yes!” to pile “maybe?” to chisel away at the stack till what was left were those words, those essays that could not, should not, be left to crumble into paper flakes, the ink fading by the year, passwords lost and irretrievable.

but, more than anything, to be the caretaker — to be asked in someone’s last will and testament, for heaven’s sake, not just some passing rumination — is to take to heart the work of seeking light. of lifting up what amounts to someone’s heart and soul and inextinguishable brilliance, and offering it sacramentally to the world, believing wholly that it will find its way to every pair of eyes, to every thirsty soul, to every pathfinder who cannot find her or his way. especially, in this case, anyone who happens to be searching for a path through the tangled woods of cancer, a path my friend mary ellen knew too well. and took on like no one i’ve ever known.

penflor2

admittedly, my drop caps are not quite so frilly…

it’s been three years, with fits and starts, and sudden rushes of momentum. i’m riding a tail wind right now, have been deep in teaching myself the ways of self-publishing. yesterday laid out 71 pages, complete with drop caps (those giant-sized first letters of every essay, a typographic wonder with roots in the illuminated manuscripts of eighth-century British isles, and those bent-over cloistered monks who traced Biblical text with quill of peacock, crow or eagle, and ink from insects, plants, burned bones or bits of gold).

along the way in this modern-day manuscript making, a brilliant friend (formerly a new york times book review editor) was hired as a second pair of eyes in the sorting phase, to add her voice to the hard task of editorial umpiring, calling balls and strikes and the occasional grand slam. a proposal was written, sent to a literary agent and a publisher, both of whom deemed the writing “beautiful” — “smart, reflective, emotionally transparent,” declared the agent — but because publishing in any circumstance is a steep uphill climb, doing so posthumously is even steeper. they pointed us toward doing this on our own: meaning, learning the ways of self-publishing.

in recent weeks, as i puttered about my garden and my life, it began to feel as if my friend mary ellen was traipsing behind me, tap-tapping me on the shoulder once again, getting antsy (as might have been her way), wondering what the heck the bottleneck was all about. and if i’ve learned anything in my decades here on earth, you do not — repeat, not! — ignore the sotto voce whispers of one you’ve loved, now keeping watch from wherever it is those whispers come.

so i got to work. and we’re ready to grab our ISBN (the 13-digit numeric monogram that makes a book a book, gets it entered into the library of congress, for crying out loud; next best thing to tying it up with a frilly bow, baking it a cake).

if writing is holy work, and for some of us it is, burrowing deep inside the wisdoms and epiphanies of someone wise and wiser as her death drew near is among the holiest. and the most blessed. i am blanketed inside the skeins of her sentences. i punctuate paragraph after paragraph with my tears. i hear her voice so loudly, so emphatically, and yet more gently than i’ve ever heard before, i wouldn’t be surprised if she tapped me in a dream, whispered blessings for bringing her holy work across the finish line.

it’s what she dreamed. it’s what she asked. and it’s a task carried not on our shoulders, but in our twinned hearts. where the magic is this: along the way it can sometimes feel impossible, and too heavy a load. but sticking with it — be it this book, or any seemingly unbearable assignment — forgiving the lulls and sabbaticals, carrying it into the light, just might make it the most essential work in a long long while, love’s true labor.

mary ellen, any day now you’ll have your ISBN. and your name forever gracing the cover. and someone, some day, will pull you from the shelf, and your words will be inscribed in countless hearts. which is what you set your sights on from the very beginning…

0

Mary Ellen Sullivan, author of “On the Wings of the Hummingbird: An Invitation to Intentional Joy,” ISBN coming soon. (photos courtesy of Maureen Butler)

have you considered the holiness of the daily work you do? what moments in particular seem shot through with something a bit bigger than the moment at hand? and how might your daily tasks illuminate this too-dark world?

hummingbird wisdom, continued

h-bird-6

six months ago, my dear and longtime friend mary ellen sullivan died. she was a writer, a chronicler of joy, i called her when i sat down to write her obituary, trying to distill her essence into a few short sentences and paragraphs that swept across the arc of a life too short. a month or so after she died, i found out she’d written me into her will, appointed me the keeper of her “creative work.” it’s a mantle i accept with heavy heart. a week ago, on a hot august afternoon, i met her brother in her emptied-out apartment, and he handed me boxes and boxes and boxes, her creative work, in all its iterations. it was perhaps the heaviest load of papers i’ve ever tried to lift. i didn’t wait long to open the lid of one of the boxes, to lift pages, to begin to read, to inhale the story of a life i knew well, a story told this time in mary ellen’s own words. i all but felt her beside me, or sitting across the table. i knew the intonations, the emphases of every single sentence. i knew she’d tiptoe into my dreams. i knew she’d left wisdom that i was to unearth, to not let die along with her.

night after night, i pulled up to the kitchen table, not far from the screen door, where the breeze blew in, not far from the night sounds, the buzzsaw of cicada, the chirp of the crickets. i’d pile a stack of journals and notebooks and paper-clipped papers to my left, papers lifted from the boxes that waited in the dark of another room, the load of mary ellen’s boxes.

it was, i tell you, like sitting down with a dear friend, pulling in close enough to brush knees against knees. it was as if i’d said, “so tell me your story,” and thus she began, in whispers. i’d known these chapters in real time, and here i was, reading, hearing the whole of it in details sometimes so intimate i closed the book and tucked it aside. i promise you my tender heart is guiding me through what’s mine to shepherd to light, and what’s best tucked away.

i read page after page from the writing classes she’d take, from the book about africa she’d long hoped to write, to publish.

and then i picked up this: two stapled pages, curled and yellowed at the edges, typed in a font from computers of long ago, early HP perhaps. i read the first sentence, and started to tremble. i had a hard time reading through tears, but this is what i began to read…

“If I were to die in five minutes, I would miss sleeping, and the warm wood of my apartment floor. I would miss talking to Barbie on the phone on Saturday mornings with a cup of coffee in my hands. I would miss running errands in the neighborhood and going for long hard runs after work when the air is clean and cool and gives you the shivers when your sweat starts to dry. I would miss the ocean most of all. Any ocean, any beach. The feel of wet sand between my toes and the waves breaking over my body and the sand going from warm to cool in the early evening when the sun starts to set and everyone but me and my family leave the beach and we just sit there and talk and read and watch the sand turn purple and the water a deep blue and the sky orange and very beautiful. I will miss running in the water and splashing so much that you might as well go swimming so you do.

“I’ll miss kissing a man for the first time…..”

and then, i tell you, i could barely read, the tears were falling so hard, so fast. (they are now, truth be told….) so i waited, and breathed, and wiped away the tears, and i looked back at the page, the page trembling in my hands by then, and i read the litany of things my friend would miss, if she were to die in five minutes, five minutes from the moment she wrote all those words. in fact, she died on march 13, 2016, far sooner than she’d ever imagined. she never thought the ovarian cancer would kill her. she fully intended to vanquish the cancer. to become someone who had had cancer.

but my friend who died, who wrote this litany in a writing class, an exercise titled, “death is the name,” who wrote this thinking death was the last thing that would ever happen to her (yes, i see the unintended word play, and i’m ignoring it), whose words i now inhaled half a year after she had died, she wrote that she’d miss her down comforter, and staying up late by herself and “the freedom the night gives.” she wrote that she’d miss the first taste of an expensive dinner, and the last gritty drop of a bottle of red wine. she wrote that she’d miss hot baths and getting lost in paperbacks.

her sentences grew more and more beautiful, the deeper she sank into the exercise, wrapping herself in the velvet cloak of worldly magnificence.

i was struck, hard and deep, by the simplicity of the litany. the depth and dimension of each pulsing joy, now taken away.

she made me think hard about how our lives are stitched of thin but mighty threads, glimmering delicate threads, threads we’d be wise to notice, to run our fingers across, again and again, for they’re what’s woven into the beautiful whole.

our lives, she made me realize once again, are a textured tapestry of heartache and joy, of blessing and softness and shadow and light, of everyday wonders that awake us to the moment, so the moments slow to a pause, so we behold each blessed minute of our awareness, our awakeness, so each hour is relished for the gift that it is. so not an hour goes by unnoticed.

“if i were to die in five minutes,” she wrote. and i read those words six months after she did. and thus, each word came to me as if shouted through a megaphone: be awake. pay attention. savor the blessed, the beautiful.

the warmth of the mug you hold in your palms? notice it. bless it. you’ll so miss it when it’s gone, when you’re gone.

a question and a challenge: what would you miss, what blessing upon blessing across the quotidian arc of your day? make a list, compile your litany. and then, pay closest attention today. and tomorrow. and the day after. my friend mary ellen would love you for that.

i titled this “hummingbird wisdom, continued,” because my friend mary ellen was all about the hummingbird. she wrote a blog called, on the wings of the hummingbird. and she once wrote these words explaining her captivation with the hover-winged bird:

“My favorite description of the hummingbird magic comes from Ted Andrews, who wrote the seminal book on animal totems called ‘Animal Speak.’ He says, ‘There is something inside the soul of all of us that wants to soar through sunbeams, then dance midair in a delicate mist, then take a simple bath on a leaf. There is something in our souls that wants to hover at beautiful moments in our lives, making them freeze in time. There is something in us that wants to fly backwards and savor once more the beautiful past. Some of us are just hummingbird people.’

“Guilty as charged.” — Mary Ellen Sullivan, May 30, 2012

special edition: mary ellen sullivan & the soul of the hummingbird

mes-shot_200_dpi

i don’t usually write on wednesday mornings, but this is no ordinary wednesday. my beloved friend, the one to whom i said goodbye on friday, the friend i’d not named here — out of respect, out of privacy — she died on sunday afternoon. her name is mary ellen sullivan, and before she died, she asked that i write her obituary. my knees nearly buckled when i opened the email friday night that held that blessed and soulful and wrenching request. mary ellen was a writer; we met 35 years ago, when i was a nurse learning how to be a journalist, and she was fresh out of boston college, ready to take on the world as a magazine writer and editor. we stayed friends for all the years and all the life that has tumbled by since the summer of 1981. i was in her wedding, she was in mine. i was there, too, when her marriage ended, and for the weeks and months that followed. she drove me to the hospital the bitter-cold night when my first pregnancy was suddenly slipping away. i drove her home from the airport the gray winter’s afternoon when she returned from her six-month trek around the globe all on her own; it was during that car ride that i told her i was again pregnant, this time with the baby who would become my firstborn. when mary ellen started a blog four years ago, i became a careful reader and devoted follower. i knew — because i’d been doing it for five years by then — just how exposed you can feel, just how much it matters that this curious form of writing be held to the very same standards we’d both learned at medill’s school of journalism (i loved it once, not so many months ago, when mary ellen caught a typo in one of my blog posts, and she called to make sure i correct it; i had mis-typed “their” when it should have been “there”). and we both knew that an even higher standard comes into play when you commit to what we do here: you write from the heart, you speak the deepest truth you know, and when you hit the “publish” button you unreel a prayer.

so in the hollow hours of saturday, wholly aware of the weight of the assignment — “write mary ellen’s obit” — i turned to mary ellen’s breathtaking blog, on the wings of the hummingbird. as i pored over her entries, i melted. and i started to smile a very deep smile. i realized that mary ellen had already written much of her obituary. her words were so poetic, so infused with the essence of who she was and ever will be, i simply began to snatch up whole passages, lining them up in what felt like the wisest order. i realized that mary ellen might have had a hunch that i’d figure out the way to write her obit: let her write her obit. and so i did. i stepped out of the way, made hers the voice of the obit.

it is serious business — in my book, perhaps, the most serious business — to write an obit, anyone’s obit. a whole life is distilled. the message of a lifetime is trumpeted, is illuminated. it is daunting to sit down and try to capture the whole, the beauty, the poetry. and so, every time, before i lift a finger, before i put a finger to keyboard, i close my eyes and i pray. 

the answer to my prayer on sunday afternoon, minutes after i learned that mary ellen had died and it was time for me to begin my assignment, is today in the chicago tribune; it’s what’s known as the “lead obit.” mary ellen would love that. and that makes me smile in a week when my heart is sodden with sorrow.

with love, here is a life story i want you to read. mary ellen’s wisdom, her poetry, her clarity — the whole of her — takes my breath away. from today’s chicago tribune:

Mary Ellen Sullivan, who wrote a blog on joy, dies at 56

Barbara Mahany
Chicago Tribune

On the day she was wheeled into surgery for recently diagnosed ovarian cancer, Mary Ellen Sullivan wrote words that would become her clarion call, words that ring with the insistent urgency of a prophet: “If you are sleepwalking through your life — wake up — before the universe does it for you.”

She posted the words on her blog, On the Wings of the Hummingbird, a compendium of wisdom and joy, under the title, “A rare piece of hummingbird advice.”

Sullivan, 56, who died of ovarian cancer Sunday at Prentice Women’s Hospital in Chicago, wasn’t in the business of giving advice.

She was a writer and traveler, a diviner of joy — joy unexpected, unlikely and against the odds. “In a time of chaos (now righted),” she wrote in March 2012, “on a day in which joy seemed eclipsed by uncertainty, I committed to writing about joy every day. I figured that if I can find joy when I’m in the mud, then maybe I have something to say about joy.”

Sullivan, a longtime Chicago resident, was born in Harlingen, Texas, and, from the beginning, crisscrossed the continent and the globe.

“I grew up a nomad,” she once wrote, “living in 10 different places by the time I was 19 because my father’s corporate job took our family across the country and around the world. Some of it was glamorous — San Francisco in 1969, Europe for my college years — but other parts were, as you might imagine, difficult.”

She earned a bachelor’s degree from Boston College in 1981, majoring in English, with philosophy and art history minors. In 1982, she earned a master’s degree in magazine journalism from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.

Upon graduation, she took a job as a magazine editor at General Learning Corp., a small educational publishing house in Highland Park, and five years later, she moved to Advocate Health Care, in Oak Brook, where she ran the publications department for another five years.

She was putting down roots, falling in love with Chicago, from the lakefront she biked by the mile to the backstreets and blues joints and countless holes in the wall. She explored the city with an adventurer’s eye and a journalist’s curiosity. After a decade, though, she was ready to travel the globe. All on her own.

“On the heels of a short marriage, a grueling divorce and some burning career questions, I took an extended leave of absence from my job to travel around the world by myself,” she once wrote. “I skied the mountains of New Zealand and biked through the Chinese countryside. I bargained for goods at the Bangkok night market, shopped the glittering stores of Hong Kong, touched the crumbling Berlin Wall, swam along the coast of Australia and holed up in Somerset Maugham’s former hotel room in Malaysia to write.

“Mine was nothing less than a spiritual journey in which I peeled off layers of cultural conditioning to get to the essence of my spirit,” she wrote.

Unwilling to return to the corporate world, Sullivan launched a freelance writing career that brought her bylines in the New York Times and various women’s magazines, as well as travel guides, a book about Chicago’s “Cows on Parade” public sculpture exhibit, and liner notes for a jazz record label.

She designed her life, she said, so that she could continue to travel, paradoxically deepening her roots the farther she roamed.

“I spent one winter in South America, another on Tahiti and Easter Island. Along the way I fell in love with Africa and returned to this land of my heart, time and time again. I began studying with the ancient medicine men and women around the world, and found a community here in Chicago of like-minded people who became my tribe.”

While in Chicago, Sullivan convened a writers’ group that influenced a memoir, a novel, a self-help volume and a historical text, “The Warmth of Other Suns.”

She might have found her deepest calling, though, as a keeper and chronicler of joy. Her blog, which she started in March 2012, was a reflection of the way she lived her life.

She began by putting a journalist’s sharp eye to the world around her:

“I noticed how unconscious most people were, blind to the joy all around them. They walked with their heads down and their defenses up. They saw without seeing, heard without hearing, spoke without thinking, remembering nothing. It actually hurt my heart to watch. And then, as the economy got worse and the natural disasters quickened, I saw fear, anger and incivility. Drivers became ruder, sales clerks surlier, tempers shorter.”

And so, she set out to right that, recording joy day after day. She named her blog after the hummingbird: “My favorite description of hummingbird magic comes from Ted Andrews, who wrote the seminal book on animal totems called ‘Animal Speak.’ He says, ‘There is something inside the soul of all of us that wants to soar through sunbeams, then dance midair in a delicate mist, then take a simple bath on a leaf. There is something in our souls that wants to hover at beautiful moments in our lives, making them freeze in time. There is something in us that wants to fly backwards and savor once more the beautiful past. Some of us are just hummingbird people.’”

“Guilty as charged,” Sullivan added.

And she ended one blog entry with this insistent instruction: “And 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.”

Sullivan’s partner of 18 years, Michael Schmitt, died in 2014.

She is survived by her parents, Donal and Martha Sullivan; two brothers, Bill and John; and a sister, Sheila Zimmerman.

Memorial services are pending.

Barbara Mahany is a freelancer reporter.
Copyright © 2016, Chicago Tribune

blessings, my beautiful friend. blessings upon blessings. and thank you. thank you with all my heart….

FullSizeRender

this is the headline that wound up in the newspaper edition of the story. she would love this headline, as do i. oh to be known as a “chronicler of joy”….blessings, my hummingbird friend. i will be watching for you, waiting for the brush of your wings past my brow. and my heart…..