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Tag: motherprayer

prayer for comings and goings

gyroscope

gy·ro·scope  /’jira-skop/  n. a device used to provide stability or maintain a fixed direction, consisting of a wheel or disk spinning rapidly about an axis that is free to alter in direction. a device for measuring or maintaining orientation and angular velocity. it is a spinning wheel or disc in which the axis of rotation is free to assume any orientation by itself.

“device for maintaining orientation.”

sometimes i think my job is to be the human gyroscope. to keep it all straight. to keep all afloat. at speeds all their own. above all: to maintain orientation.

sometimes, even my own.

today is one of those days when the gyroscope in me is working overtime. before i was even awake i was tracing the map in my head of where people i love — children i love — are scattering today. one is climbing into a van with a van full of friends and a summer’s worth of clothes and rolling from new haven, to new york, to washington, to the rolling hills of virginia, then back to d.c. for a long, hard summer playing like a tv lawyer.

yet another of my kids (there are only two, lest i make it sound as if there are dozens and dozens) is marching into his last friday of high school. then he and the little flock i’ve come to love (as if my own), they are scattering like pool balls all across the country: wisconsin, new york, indiana, michigan, ohio, and, yes, illinois. (how apt that the heartland is draped in these particular boys, a heart-filled flock if ever there was.)

years back, when my firstborn headed off to massachusetts, and i stayed behind in sweet chicago, i got my first taste of this re-mapping that mamas do. i imprinted the hills of western massachusetts, pioneer valley, into my imagination. i knew the streets and inclines he loped day after day. and as i’d talk to him, the pictures in my head traveled along. on days when i wasn’t talking to him, i imagined where he trekked. you learn, when you’re someone who loves faraway, how to plunk yourself far far from where you dwell. the size of the space inside your head, it reaches as far as it needs to stretch. adds a live pulsing dot onto the map of the globe. you find yourself scanning the news for hot spots near any one of your very own dots. but mostly, you unreel a whole new reel of picture shows, one for each faraway someone you love.

i woke up this morning wanting more than anything to do like i’d always done when they were little, and we were about to go on a road trip. we’d pile into the wagon, check all the seatbelts, shuffle the water jug away from their feet, be sure the snack bag was reachable. then, before i shifted the car into reverse, we all paused, bowed our heads and muttered the mixed-up prayer that was our own: “holy garden angels protect us.” (one of us once dropped a syllable in guardian and it’s stuck ever since.)

this morning my prayer would be a bit more complex. it’s been nuanced over the years, textured with shadow, with depth and, yes, patches of darkness. the pleadings are at once as unfettered as ever — please let us land safe and whole wherever it is we’ve set out to go — and far more intricate, taking into account the particular inclines and tight mountain passages that come when the journeys are of the real-world, unchaperoned, higher-altitude ilk.

my instinct — no matter how far from home the journey begins — is always to reach toward the ones i so love, spread my arms and my safe-keeping prayers across and around them. i picture the prayer shawl, the one we draped over their shoulders the day they first chanted the Torah, the one we’ve pulled off the shelf for each of their blessings. all these years and journeys later, it’s the sacred cloth i yearn to lay on their shoulders, to wrap round their backs, as they bow their sweet heads, and my job — my holiest job — is to anoint them with my prayers. and my love.

dear holy God, God of adventure and challenge, God of steep inclines and precipitous drops, dear God, steady their footfall. soften the blows. dial up the everyday triumphs and occasional joys. most of all, bring them home, safe and sound and whole. and, yes, steady me, as i try my hardest to maintain orientation. no matter what comes.

amen. and with love.

what’s your prayer for comings and goings? 

the fixer

vintage tool kit

warning: this is bound to contain self-incriminating confessional as i explore the wilds of motherdom, and the root of the many sleepless nights in this old house.

somewhere along the line, the mothering line, perhaps long long ago in the days when a toy train would lose its wheels, or our striped little kitten would get stuck for days and days in some unknown nook or cranny along our graffiti-strewn alley, i seem to have morphed my job description, cobbling in an amendment to my motherly constitution, one that made me in charge of glueing on run-away train wheel, parading the alley for hours on end till said kitten meowed loudly enough for me to detect his latitude and longitude, bang on the door, grab the gang banger (yes, this is true), and get the little rascal loosed from his trappings.

i became the fixer. where i saw shattered parts or hearts, i’d set out to fix ’em.

this is not a task one should take on too lightly. for life, as it’s wont to do, throws steeper and steeper inclines, raises the bar higher and higher. when a backpack grew moldy, i could toss it in the wash. when a favorite sweatshirt somehow got kidnapped between the schoolyard, the little league lot, and the bedroom, i could dial up another one. i cannot count the number of days — and nights — of my life i spent prowling the alleys of chicago’s north side or this leafy little town, tearfully yodeling for our lost little kitten, the one who came home every time, with adventures left wholly unspoken.

truth be told, in the muddle of mothering, of being the self-appointed healer of brokenness, i took a wee bit of shine to this task and this title. if i could fix the runaway train wheel, track down the cat who’d lost his way home, maybe i had quasi-magical powers. maybe i’d found a backwater in life for which i had particular navigational skills. if i could set the world right, after it had been hurled topsy-turvy and helter-skelter, well then i could expunge a whole lot of hurt. i could find a way to nudge us — me and the people i loved — back to ground zero, the tranquil landscape of equanimity. aka, nirvana. or at least the momentary mirage thereof.

it was a job that felt noble and good. and, perhaps i’d fooled myself into thinking, locked in my indispensability.

the problem is that the little people over whose peaceable kingdoms i reigned, they got big and bigger. and so too did the things that need fixing. missing homework might be explained with a note to the teacher. not so much hearts mangled by crushes. or any one of the conundrums that are the daily bread and butter of life in the 21st century.

nowadays, often enough to give me that haggard sheen that comes from long nights tossing and turning and even longer days churning inside, i find myself encountering the worries of ushering one kid through the last few weeks of his junior year of high school, and another one who’s just moved to DC for the summer and found himself sleeping in a dorm room that redefines “spartan” (the exterminator slipped a note under the door just yesterday, and someone saw fit to assure the dormers that the asbestos was confined to the boiler room), and all while juggling a paper or two still due back at law school.

too many things i cannot fix. and, yes, i realize the fallacy. i understand that i shouldn’t, that it’s not my job — nor would it be wise in the long run — to be anyone’s personal fix-it shop. but somehow in my scrambled head, i still ache to be able to wave my magic wand, as i so ingeniously did in the old days. and i can’t quell the yearning — and scrambling — to do so.

maybe it comes from years of not knowing how to fix the things that flummoxed my very own self. the chains that truly bound me. maybe the easy satisfaction of glueing together a toy, of putting clean sheets on the bed of someone i loved, maybe it all gave me an unquenchable glimpse of how it might be to wield prestidigitational powers — the ones i clearly lacked when i was the broken one.

or maybe it’s just what you do when you love. when you remember the day you whispered the promise: “i will shield you, my sweet, will do all in my power to keep you from hurt and from harm. will enfold you in safe holy wings.”

maybe, in the end, the love itself is the thing. maybe the fixing isn’t quite so much the point.

maybe even when we can’t find the missing piece, solve the equation, apply the glue, maybe it’s in the certain openness of our hearts, the willingness to leap into the trenches, or even to listen from afar, maybe it’s the undying sense that we’re in for the forever haul, maybe that’s where the true fixing comes….

maybe that’s the heart of my unending motherprayer…

i’m without answers, and uncertain whether my fixing affliction is shared by many, though i’ve a hunch i’m not alone. do we miss the point — and drive ourselves batty — when we think it’s our job to be the fix-it machine? or is the whole point to station ourselves firmly and squarely beside the hearts we love, so that when they inevitably wobble or break, we are right there to apply love even when we’ve no glue?

prayer for the road

law school route

i awoke in the night, weaving the threads of my prayer for the road. 

when the car is packed with the last few things — the ones you only think of as you ramble through the last few hours before buckling the seat belts, checking the rear view mirror, asking yourself if you really did remember to turn off the stove, and lock the front door — you might bow down your head. sometimes, you drop to your rickety knees (or i do, anyway, carefully placing a pillow under the one that especially creaks).

there’s never been a road trip from this old house, nor hardly a medium-long trip to anywhere, even a far-flung soccer field, in which we don’t launch into our prayer that always begins, “holy garden angels protect us.” it’s not that we endow the patron saints of delphinium and hydrangea with any particular highway powers, it’s that long long ago, when someone’s ears were just beginning to parse the garble of vowels and consonants that tumbled from our mouths, he was certain that’s precisely what we were saying. as happens, it stuck. 23 years later, it’s the garden angels who get our road-trip salutation.

that might be the prayer i pray aloud, the heartfelt benediction in lickety-split tempo, not unlike the sprinkling of holy water across a crowd, one last certainty between reverse and drive, but the one that i will murmur all day long, it’s coming from a deeper place, a place that’s been keeping watch, a place that measures growth in fractions of a decimal, when need be, and knows full well when thresholds are being high-hurdled.

it’s the soul of the child i love that i consider my most essential watch. soul, as i sometimes define it, is a weave of heart and hope, of dreams launched and shattered pieces glued back together, the repair becoming the strong point. the repair, the place where resonant lessons are certain to be found.

and so the boy i love — a man now, to be certain — he’s off to law school at the crack of dawn tomorrow. we’re driving him there, all of us. settling him into his grown-up apartment, poking around the landscape, learning about this place, this old new england town, that he’ll call home.

and i will blanket him in the whispered words of the prayer, the motherprayer, that i’ve been weaving all his life. i will pray for solid footing, for a feeling of belonging, being embraced for who he is, and what he brings to any conversation (for what mother doesn’t pray that her child feels whole amid the current, not shoved to margins, the periphery of ill-fit diminishment?).

i will pray for laughter to animate his hours, because deep in the core of study, there is always room for the spray of great good humor, for the gleam that flashes from his eyes, because hilarity is among his strongest suits. and laughter, i’ve long believed, is the bellow of the angels here among us.

i will pray for sacred moments to graze his consciousness, for him to feel a sense of having been touched by the hand of the Divine, to gather up those daily beads of deep-down knowing that he is not alone, he is held in heaven’s light. i will pray for gentle kindness, for those who cross his path to stitch his hours with that unifying softness, the one that reminds we’re all in this, this daily grind toward tiny triumphs, we’re in it together. compatriots on the dusty road of living.

i’ll pray that the pitch of the trails he climbs is within his stride, will stretch him, strengthen his resilience, build capacities. and that the vista from the summits will fill his lungs, charge his heart, give him just the blast he needs to set out again. to take the climb up another notch.

i’ll pray that every once in a while there’s a victory so sweet he can cup it in his hands, hold it, savor it.

i can hardly bear to pray that when the heartbreak comes — and it will come, in varied doses and degrees — he is held and wrapped in arms and heart and love that temper crushing blows, that extract the sting, that salve the wounds and set him on his way again.

i pray, i suppose, that all his life, and certainly on this adventure just ahead, he lives and breathes with the full armament of undying love that i’ve been breathing into him, believing into him, since long before the day he was born, and cradled in my arms.

go with God, sweet scholar. go always always with the God of Purest Love.

xoxox, mommo

that’s my prayer for firstborn, or at least it’s today’s rendition. i never seem to run out of prayers for him. i live and breathe them.

no need to answer, but i wonder what might be the prayer you pray as you set out on today’s adventures?

oh, it matters

nest and egg.jpg

a nest that tumbled from my pine trees the other morning, and the speckled egg of the white-crowned sparrow who’d so diligently constructed the breathtaking weave of stick and leaf and, for a dash of birdly pizazz, the cellophane strip.

if there is one thing i know, if there is one thing i’ve been breathing for nearly 24 years, plus the eight months that preceded, the eight months from the moment i saw the little white ultrasound dot blinking and blinking with blessed assurance, it is this: mothering matters. life-and-death matters. whole-or-empty matters.

mothering matters in those hours when someone you love is at the end, the very end, of his or her rope. when that someone is near despondent with hopelessness. or maybe just burning with fever.

mothering matters, too, in all the in-between times. the barely noticed times. the i-remember-you-love-this-jelly-more-than-the-other-kind times. the you-missed-the-bus-again-?-!-! times; oh-sure-i’ll-drive-you times…

to mother, in the way that i mean, is to become the vessel that your child, your someone who loves you, needs. not in a hollowed-out i’m-nothing sort of a way. but in a mighty, i’ll-be-what-you-need, i’ll-be-whatever-you-need sort of a way. or i’ll try anyway.

it is to be living, breathing empathy.

empathy, my etymology friends tell me, is a relatively new word, one coined just after the turn of the 20th century, in 1908, drawn from the german, from Einfühlung, a word coined by a german philosopher, to mean “in + feeling” as a translation of greek empatheia “passion, state of emotion,” from the assimilated form of en “in” + pathos “feeling.”

to mother, my friend the deeply soulful writer katrina kenison says, “is to be fully present for another, in a spiritual sense.”

can you even begin to imagine the job description?

try this: must be willing, for the duration, to cradle against the harshest winds, cruel winds. must be alert to cries in the night. and ones at the end of long-distance phone lines. must have basic first-aid skills (kisses to cuts and bumps, required). must be willing to lie, wide-eyed and heavy-hearted, for long hours, sometimes from midnight till daybreak. might be skilled at celebrating small triumphs, ones that no one else might notice, but you know because you’ve been listening and watching, and you’ve seen how steep was the path your loved one was climbing. must let go — not of the heart, but of the everyday choices. must watch make mistakes. must try not to scold (scolding, a verb i grew up with does nothing but chafe at the soul, nip at the bud of the blossoming beautiful child). must forgive. yourself and your someone you love.

i could go on. i will go on. for the rest of my days as i keep close watch on this masterful, mystical art of mothering.

i’m struck, often, and saddened, at how dismissed mothering can sometimes be. in a world of power suits, apron strings were relegated to the back of the pantry. even though every one of us knows how deep a blessing it is to be mothered by a full-throttle motherer, one who deftly knows when to hit the gas and when to let up — when to be the the hand at the small of the back and when to stand quietly off in the wings (whispering whole-hearted incantations the whole while) — i think we sometimes forget — as a society — the power and magnitude of mothering. we forget, perhaps, how deeply this world needs what we know, what we do, endlessly and tirelessly.

a few weeks ago, i was out and about talking about motherprayer, the book i birthed last month, and a lovely woman, a woman with two grown daughters, raised her hand, and recounted that just that very afternoon, she’d been talking to one of her daughters, and she’d lamented the fact that she’d “never done anything important” with her life. but, then, she said, sitting and listening to what we’d been saying about mothering, it had just dawned on her that maybe, after all, she had done something important. maybe raising two beautiful daughters, who in kind were raising beautiful children, maybe — it dawned on her — she had done something important indeed.

oh my.

it was all i could do to not leap from where i was standing, and enfold her in a hallelujah squeeze of enlightenment. so, instead, i swallowed the lump in my throat, and stood there marveling at what she’d just realized.

and, now on this second friday in may, here we are on the brink of the day when, for one short whirl of the sun, we hold mothering up to the light. my prayer, this day and every day, is that we catch a glimpse, a deep glimpse, of its glories. that we think deep and hard about the difference that motherlove made in our lives, how it allowed us to catch the updraft, how it dried our tears and set us on our way.  how it always, always listened. how maybe it whispered, every once in a while, “you are so beautiful.”

your motherlove might not have come from your mother. but, surely, there was someone somewhere who loved as a mother loves. and you learned, perhaps, to love in that way.

and so it continues, the blessed and glorious love like no other: motherlove, stitched with courage, shimmering with radiant light. brave, raw, messy, ever beautiful.

to every motherer everywhere, may you be wrapped in pure blessing. today, tomorrow, and every day after.

with all my love, b.

what would you add to the job description, the mothering job, i mean?

for the whimsy of it, here’s a little video my beautiful publisher, Abingdon Press, made. it’s me reading an essay from Motherprayer, and it’s the one in which i make the case for celebrating mothering, the verb, and not just mothers per se. it’s making the case that it’s the particular art of loving, one that belongs to anyone who mothers, that is so deeply worthy of a national holiday. It’s All About the -ing

i’m dashing to take my little guy to school, so i’ll check soon as i’m home to make sure all is in working order……

and a happy blessed birthday to one of the most glorious motherers i know, our very own lamcal, who is magnificent and a profile in pure mother courage. 

fallen nest and egg

little nest, and fallen egg, brought inside for safe keeping. and beholding. and honoring.

 

revisions

IMG_7641

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

it’s motherprayer.

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

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

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

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

 

pulled by heart

lunch

the hour hand had just nudged itself past 5. the tableau out the window was black-on-black. the bedsheets, warm, toasty warm. the soft folds of the flannel, pulled snug against my shoulders, invited one last episode of sleep. all i wanted was one more hour. but then i remembered.

the light down the hall was already splintered through the crack under the door. the soft bells of an alarm were faintly chiming. the whoosh of the shower broke the pre-dawn hush of a house just beginning to rouse. i knew my firstborn was up and getting dressed. i knew he’d soon be barreling into the morning’s bitter cold. the headlights of his little black car would shine down the alley, turn toward the city, to the west side, to the streets where just a week ago a bullet pierced the window of the pre-K classroom in the school where he teaches. the bullet shattered glass. sailed across the room, ramrodded a metal pipe, ricocheted. hit no one. thank God. but the cluster of little 4-year-olds, who by the grace of God had been clustered at that instant on the far side of the classroom, away from the bank of sidewalk-level windows, they heard the blast, the ping, and at last the thud of the bullet dropping to the classroom’s hard tile floor. deadly sounds. sounds that shouldn’t be heard in a pre-K classroom. or any classroom anywhere.

a week ago, at 2:46 p.m., i got this text from my firstborn:

There’s been a shooting outside school. We are in lockdown, but I am okay, so are my students. Do not call, I don’t want there to be any noise in my room.

a mother’s heart all but stops when she reads those words.

it would be another hour till he called, till i heard the rush of air i knew as his voice. it was over now, he told me.

the children had all been shepherded into the hands of parents. or grandparents. or some adult who’d get them home. he, too, was headed home, he told me. shaken, so shaken by the news of what happened in the pre-K. shaken by the holes in the metal screen and the pane of glass. shaken by the glass that shattered in what looked like a cobweb of shards. shaken by the long hour’s lockdown, not knowing the whole time — as he tried to keep his sixth graders quiet — whether the shooter was inside or out of the building. shaken by footsteps that ran down the hall, toward his classroom, where the door had been locked. shaken by the news that a mother who’d come to school early to take home her young child had stepped out the school’s front door into the direct line of two men with guns chasing down the sidewalk, shooting. the mother threw her little one to the sidewalk, then threw herself — hard — on top. she waited, she’d told a teacher, lay stone still, not knowing if she’d be hit. fully expecting the thud of a bullet to her back. or worse.

monday, my kid came home with word that 46 kids of 180 kids hadn’t come to school that day. parents kept them home. they’re not used to bullets piercing classroom windows. not even on the west side of chicago. he said, too, that the only two white kids in the school, kids whose parents teach there, they’d been pulled. “a social experiment they weren’t willing to risk any longer,” was how he put it.

and then he said, “mom, if i tell you something, promise not to freak out.”

ooo-kay.

“there’s apparently a turf war in the neighborhood, and (school) is in the middle of it.”

and so as you hear those words, as they barely begin to settle onto your eardrums, onto your heart, you somersault into prayer. your every inhale breathes in prayer. your exhale begins the next, an endless loop of prayer after prayer.

you settle yourself down, slowly. over the course of hours, as you turn round and round the heartache, the insanity of it all, as you sift through the shards, examine from all angles. imagine the worst. consider the kids who call those streets home. who can’t leave.

you pray mightily.

and then, yesterday on the front page of the newspaper, there was a story with eery echoes. it was a story that happened last friday, just five hours after the bullet shattered the window of my kid’s school. it happened three miles due south. a bullet — out of nowhere — pierced the driver’s side window of a parked car where a young 25-year-old woman was sitting, talking on her cellphone to her dad in san diego. suddenly, he told the reporters who had called him, she started to say her head hurt, her head hurt. then the phone went dead. the dad in san diego couldn’t figure out what happened. frantic, he called his daughter’s boyfriend, who called her roommate, who ran out onto the street and down the block where she found the woman slumped, near dead. the woman died from a bullet that “came out of nowhere;” two men chasing down the street with guns. the stray bullet — a bullet not meant for her — killed her.

as i sat there reading the news story, tracing the lines that connected her story to the one i knew from my own kid’s school — same day, same short span of hours, same damn  scenario, guns and chasing and flying bullets — i shuddered at the tragedy, shuddered for the father who now told the story, who now tried to explain how — as she sat in her car on her quiet street on her way home from a job where she’d just gotten a promotion, in a city she loved and had moved to after college — he was now burying his daughter, “the only one in her preschool class who could read, a straight-A high school student, a magna cum laude college graduate,” the father told the reporters.

and so this morning, knowing my kid was getting dressed to go back to the school where the pre-K window is now covered in plywood, while they wait for new glass to come, while they all pray for calm in the streets, i yanked back the sheets, and i planted my wobbly feet on the cold wood floor of my bedroom. i shuffled down the stairs, and i opened the fridge. i piled turkey on slabs of bread. i tossed in an apple. i poured a tall to-go cup of coffee.

not for one minute could i send my kid out into the cold, back to school, back to streets where a gang war wages, and not do the feeble things a mama does: i slathered mustard on bread, i folded slices of deli turkey, i tucked it all in the little brown bag he uses day after day. i prayed the whole while. i prayed mightily.

when he tumbled down the stairs, and saw me standing there with my mustard knife in hand, he looked surprised. “mommo, what are you doing here?”

just packing lunch, was all i said. he knows me well, my kid of 22 years. he knew without me saying so that that sandwich was super-packed. stacked with prayer upon prayer. besides the turkey.

as i closed the door behind him, as i told him i loved him, called out,”be safe,” i traced a sign of the cross onto the back of his thick winter coat. it’s all i could do.

it’s the truth of motherhood, or one of them anyway: we’re armed with so very little. especially when up against a world of flying, piercing, life-taking bullets.

yet we don’t abandon our station: we rise before the dawn, we shuffle down the stairs, we do what little we can. we pack a lunch, with a motherlode of prayer.

we are pulled by heart out of slumber. we are pulled by heart into prayer. deep into prayer.

what will we do? what can we do? is there any way out of this insanity that spills blood on the front seats of cars, on front porches, and playgrounds, and too many sidewalks and streets in this city?

the holy thing that got me to this moment

baby willie kissed by eileen murphy, leaving prentice to home sweet home…

prayers have been answered. and answered and answered. and, then, answered some more.

which pretty much defines the beginning, middle and end of this exercise in human devotion — in birthing and bonding and inevitably separating, though never completely, never every last cord to the heart — on this joyride called parenting. it surely explains what got us here to this holy moment: about to shuffle down a jetway to board a plane to fly through the heavens to land at the doorstep of one college graduation.

the latest prayer answered, the one i whispered as i rustled beneath my sheets yesterday morning, was this: “dear God, thank you for bringing them home safe and sound from their long and certainly liquid weekend at myrtle beach,” that romping ground of late for seniors in college who’ve finished their finals but not yet donned caps and gowns. thank you for keeping their tin can of a car safe on the highway for 14 some hours (each way), for keeping big rigs and 18-wheelers from slamming into their passenger doors or their windshields, or any one of those gory scenes that mothers of children on highways can picture so clearly, so vividly, so goosebumpingly.

the truest truth of parenthood, or at least the truest one for me, is that every stitch along this broadcloth of hope and faith and unwavering trust is one knotted with prayer.

from the instant someone back in that long-ago delivery room handed me that slippery, squirmy, wide-eyed babe, and then, not long after, pointed us toward the door to the big wide scary world beyond the hospital, i gulped and did the surest thing i could think of: i called on superpowers. of the highest elevations. i let rip a mighty prayer. insisted angels and saints, almighty God and Holy Mother Mary in all her maternal glories, swoop down and blanket us, point the everlasting way, whisper answers to my 9 gamillion questions — straight into my heart, the preferred route. and dare not take a coffee break.

because i knew there was no way i could make it all on my own.

if left to my own devices long, long ago — if i’d not had that lifeline of prayer, and the knowledge that in my darkest hours, in the hours when i had no answers, and barely a trace of faith in anything worldly, there was a great and tender palm of a hand (honestly, i’d put in for a whole flock of palms of hands) cradling me and my growing-up child — i’d still be cowering behind that hospital door. i might still be crumpled at the knees wondering how we’d make it out alive.

to parent — to take a fresh-from-the-womb floppy creation and teach him or her the few things you know, and the volumes you cram in along the way — is to stare down every imaginable detour and distraction, to slay the thousand dragons that taunt you in innumerable forms — the playground bully, the out-of-control coach, and the rule that will not bend, to name but three. (i suppose i shouldn’t forget my host of self-doubts and insecurities as perhaps the biggest dragons in the bunch.)

you see, i wouldn’t know how to do that — how to let the air out of ugliness, how to crack at the knees those monsters who romp in the night — without my blessed back-up squad: the angels and saints, the umpteen vigil lights and infinite vespers that are my hotline, my speed-dial, to God and assembled heavenly hosts.

one of the first things i learned when my kid went off to college — a steep climb of a first semester for me, not so for him — was that more than anything we’d stepped into the landscape of prayer. especially when your kid is 1,000 miles from home, and even you — hold-on-tight you — wouldn’t dream of calling him, oh, every hour on the quarter-hour.

i turned quickly to prayer. prayer was my safety net. the tight-woven web that kept me from tumbling into the dark. i remember how, shortly after dropping him off and flying soggily back to chicago, i found myself pulled from the great gothic tower where i typed every day, propelled down the sidewalk of north michigan avenue and into the catacombs of holy name cathedral. there, with the help of a not-so-helpful security guard, i knelt before the flickering expanse of battery-operated (egad!) prayer candles. i lit one right up, and then, in a flash of iPhone wizardry that soon became a habit, i texted a snapshot of the holy flame i’d kindled for my boy. vigil light, by virtue of wi-fi.

i can’t count the number of mornings i launched into daylight with prayers murmured before i flung back the sheets. i can’t tally the times i turned toward the east-northeast to pinpoint my prayers somewhere in the vicinity of the appropriate dot on the compass, and then let fly some litany of invocations, begging the heavens to be kind, to be gentle, to my faraway child.

as much as i prayed through the close-to-home years, i’d say i doubled the volume and depth in the long-distance years, the ones that in these modern-day times are more than likely to be our geographic realities.

the farther you get into motherhood, the less likely your kid will put up with what might be your preferred proximity — tagging along right close to his side. so, once the squirt up and grows, you’re left with a mama’s no. 1 stand-in: the invisible prayers unfurled from your heart and your tongue to the heavens above and beyond.

in the last four years, since that tear-sodden day when we dropped him alone on a green in the land of emily dickinson, it’s what’s gotten the boy i love — or, certainly, his mama — through eight rounds of final exams, umpteen close calls, countless hours rowing the icy connecticut river, one short tip across the atlantic pond, in and out of a few emergency rooms, and through a few late-night phone calls that stretched thinly — desperately — into the dawn.

as we step into the magical whirl of this weekend, when honors will be awarded and diplomas tucked in his once-little hand, as i stand back and marvel at this child who’s now a deeply fine man, as i dab away rivers of tears and a heart that’s frankly astounded, my every breath will be drawn in with a prayer, and let out with another.

i wouldn’t be here, and neither would he, i am certain, if not for the great hand of the glorious and good God who reached down and guides us each and every step of the way.

for this, i drop to my knees, in undying devotion for the one thing that got me to here: my deepest prayers answered.

and here we are, minutes from grabbing bags and dashing out the door. i’ve now put words to screen through every round of this kid’s graduations: eighth grade, high school, and, now, college. there will, god willing, be a law school graduation for my scholar child, the one who dreams of some day being a professor, or a federal judge. (he worked for a glorious such soul in the DC circuit appellate court last summer, and now has modeled his dreams on the eminently wise and humble and good-hearted justice.) i am burstingly filled with joy, with the deep knowledge that we’ve been so graced to arrive at this moment. for all of you who’ve loved us through the tight and narrow passageways, and who’ve whirled with us in the dances of hallelujah, thank you. you are as much a part of this equation as those angels and saints. in fact, you give form to angels here on earth. most especially, his two unwavering grandmas who are among the most devoted…

new trier crew bus to regatta

will and teddy. sigh.

a boy and his pupils....

practice realignment

those calls do not always come in the form of a phone ringing, but this one did.

it was early monday morning, i was minding my business, taking a stroll on the round-about that is the basement treadmill. phone rang. i answered.

“hullo, this is the lynn sage breast center at northwestern memorial hospital,” said the voice on the other end of the line. i felt a grand canyon of unanswered question gouge into the empty space between her last utterance and the silence that fell after it.

“yes,” i finally spoke up, voice creaking, begging to know what was coming next.

“the radiologist…,” i heard her say, then something about my last mammogram, the one two weeks ago. “abnormal… they’d like you to come back… as soon as possible.” so flowed the hyphenated string of words, the sound of my heartbeat drowning out whatever came between.

and so my week began with a crash and a boom. we scribbled in the appointment, the voice and i. it would be first thing the morning after the fourth of july independence holiday.

next up, the pounding of the digits on the phone face. tried to call the mate. he wasn’t there, and i wasn’t leaving that message. so i called my mama. rounded out my life list of swears-in-front-of-my-mother with a new addition, the f word. glory be to the heavens, she echoed it right back. it was a morning for firsts, all right.

and so began a 72-hour trip to heck and back.

that’s all it takes for a girl with an imagination like mine to see her whole life unspool before her eyes.

you thought you were headed to cambridge, i sassed myself. not without an oncologist’s phone number tucked there inside your pocket. you thought you liked your curly wild silver hair? imagine it missing. and so it went, through most of the week.

i saw fireworks through eyes that wondered what the morning would bring. i took a shower and barely glanced down, for fear that the sight of those troublesome lumps would make my knees buckle under right there beneath the pounding beads of shower stream. i pictured myself sprawled out on the couch in the bay window of the cambridge three-flat. wondered how i’d lug the groceries up the stairs. wondered if chicken broth and saltine crackers would be the mainstays of my cambridge foodstuffs.

it’s the reality check that tumbles us to the ground. it’s the fear of God that shakes us to our core. it’s that rare-enough interlude when we feel the world as we know it slipping through our fingers, when we can’t quite close the gap, can’t contain the fall.

i can’t say that it was wasted time, not at all really. it’s that top-to-bottom accounting of one’s life. weighing out all the bits, sifting through to what matters, what matters fiercely.

why, setting the table seemed a joy. grilling vegetables, pure pleasure. holding hands with the ones you love. listening to my college kid speak these words: “not you, mom, you’re invincible.” standing in front of the mirror, deciding that unruly mop atop my head, it’s who i am and i am not about to surrender it. not without a tussle anyway.

i consider all of it a practice drill for sizing up the joint. it’s not a bad thing — how could it be? — to take inventory of the whole of your life, to divide it into piles, this here’s essential, this does not amount to a hill o’ beans.

and in the end, all that mattered was boiled down to one short list, one simple prayer: dear God, let me live out my days being a mother to my holy blessed children. let me be there, God, on the days when they need me most. let me get that little one straight into high school, please. let me filter down into their backbones and their spines. let my sparks of light illuminate the darkest corners of their soul. dear God, give me sunrise skies in the mornings, and starlit domes at night. let me dwell, quiet, in the garden. let me smell the roses on the climbing vine. dear God, let me walk beside the ones i love. let me hear their voices, peals of laughter; let me brush away their tears when next they fall. dear God, give me the simple joy of sitting together at breakfast, of taking to the front porch with a tin of pie and two forks. give me blueberries piled high. and the unbroken blessing of a day without a worry.

but most of all, dear God, give me one more round with my little boy. he’s not ready yet to run without me at the finish line.

and sure enough, i signed into the special room yesterday morn, the one at the end of the long hall, the one already filled with too many other women with too much worry etched into their cheeks, their eyes, the corners of their mouth. we sat there, a sorority of holy desperation.

until at last they called my name. pointed the way down the long hushed hall. there, behind a door marked “A,” as i went to set my coffee mug on the top shelf of the skinny locker, as the nice lady handed me the hospital gown, instructed me to leave the ties in front, before i saw it coming, the coffee came tumbling down, all over me, on my once-white t-shirt and khaki shorts, dripping down my knees, straight to the tops of my garden-stained toes.

“may that be the worst thing that happens to you today,” said the nice lady, as she grabbed a hunk of tissues, mopped me up.

a long dull 45 minutes later, after the ladies with the magic wand pressed it back and forth, over and over, across the top of the lumpy place, at last came word that in fact the coffee spill had been the worst of it: “go home,” the attendant said.

simple as that. it was all over. the radiologist read the images, determined nothing lurked there.

“that’s it?” i asked.

“that’s it. you’re done.”

i climbed off the table. shoved open the door. walked back to the locker where my stained clothes hung.

i spent the rest of the whole long hot day whispering these simple words: thank you thank you thank you God. thank you, one more time, for the breathtaking chance to wrap my arms around my boys with not a worry in the world.

in the end, that was it, the only prayer that mattered. and the one that, this time, was wholly answered.

what was your last close call? and in the end, what’s on your short list of most essentials? the things you cannot, will not, live without?

prayer for a camper

dear mother God of woods and tangled roots, of see-through lakes, and dawn’s first light, of moonbeams drooling on the meadow grass, and birdsong waking up the day,

i have delivered to you my precious child, my tender heart, brave heart. he is yours now, for two whole weeks, yours to hold, to guide along the trails in deepest darkest night, yours to wrap your arms around in those shaky moments just before the sleep comes, when thoughts drift home, when home feels faraway and hollow fills the void.

he is yours now as he leaps off the dock into soft-bottomed sandy swimming hole. he is yours as he climbs the ropes and buckles onto that shiver-me-timber woodsy trick, the zip line. he is yours as he climbs endless dunes and jumps for dear life. hold those ankles straight, dear mother watcher God. keep those bones from cracking into twos. keep bees away, and while you’re at it, please shoosh the darn mosquitoes. ditto poison ivy.

perhaps, too, you could drift down into the dingy cabin — he’s in no. 6, in case that helps — and tap him lightly on the shoulder, whisper in his ear: “don’t forget the sunscreen. slather on the OFF!” and when he loses things, say, the water bottle, or the flashlight, maybe just maybe you could guide his searching little hand to the very secret spot where said essentials are playing hide-n-seek.

dear mother God of star-lit dome, of lake breeze, of rustling in the cottonwoods, you now tend my first-time camper, you hold him to your moss-carpeted bosom. i pray you open up the woods to him, reveal to him the mysteries of your quiet ways, your crashing-booming majesty.

for two short weeks, we’ve unplugged him just for you. he’s all yours now. he has drawn in a deep cleansing breath, shaken off his deep-woods worries, and surrendered to all the glories you have to offer him.

tap his tender heart. unspool for him the depth of confidence that’s buried deep down where he doesn’t always know it dwells. allow him to emerge from these woods, from these weeks along that crystal lake, from romping with the troupes of boys and abiding by generations-old rules of woodsmen’s games, knowing just a bit more solidly how much he has to carry into this blessed world.

if so inclined, please be there when the hour comes, at last, for him to light his torch, and lift it high — to illuminate not merely his way, but, as well, the twisting paths of all of those who walk beside him.

hold him tight, dear mother God, when he needs a squeeze, and be the wind beneath his wings when he glances down and sees that he is soaring, gliding where the eagles glide.

oh, and one last thing while i’m on my knees here begging: see if, just once or twice, you can make him reach for the milk jug  — instead of glow-in-the-dark “bug juice,” a vat of red dye no. 2 — when it’s time to fill his lunchtime glass.

that’s pretty much the whole of it from here on the home front, where i’ve nothing left to do, but turn to you, and trust with all my heart.

thank you mama God, God of dappled afternoon light, God of pit-a-pat of summer rain, God who wraps the campers in her arms, and holds them safe and blessed ever after.

so begins my two-week vigil, my prayer for my little one’s safe keeping. it wasn’t a trip without tears, wasn’t one that did not demand an oversized butterfly net to catch the wayward worries. but once there, along torch lake in northern michigan, he allowed the pure pine-woods air to fill his lungs, and animate his every step. he found particular joy in discovering his big brother’s name painted onto a plaque that hangs not far from his cabin, a place he’ll pass morning, noon, and night as he passes to the dining hall, and lakeside campfire. i like to think it’s a bit of a woodsy patron saint, keeping watch on the little one. right in here, we’ll take all the eyes we can muster. be safe, brave camper. but even more: be joy-filled.

little one leaving

since the deep dark night, 10 years and 10 months ago, when my longtime beloved obstetrician, the one who’d been sitting beside me chatting away the hours like a girlfriend at a slumber party — albeit with one of us increasingly squeezed around the middle, as one of us was deep in labor, about to birth a long-awaited, much-prayed-for babe at the ripe old age of nearly 45 — ever since she, the OB goddess, leapt from her leaning-on-the-bed place, thrust her arms through the sleeves of her backwards surgical gown, whipped on the superwoman goggles, and looked straight into my eyeballs — as the monitor slowed its beeping and the wiggly line lost its deep dips and rises, as the blinking numbers dropped from way high over 100 to down toward the crucial century mark — ever since she spelled out in no uncertain terms: “here’s the plan. you’re going to push this baby out in two swift pushes. got that?”

and i swallowed hard, knowing deep inside just how much she meant business, serious business, as i read the monitors and all but said aloud, “i am not losing this dream now; no way, we’ve come too far. it is not slipping through my fingers now.”

as i reached around me for all the angels, saints and glory-be’s there in that darkened room, where just a single shaft of spotlight shone down on the still-empty stage, ever since that night, when i did as told, and finally, blessedly, miraculously, heard that baby’s cry, i swear half my every heartbeat belongs to the one i’ve long called my “little one.”

and i am leaving him, day after tomorrow, in the woods.

all week we’ve been piling up old t-shirts, fairly ratty shorts, towels that won’t mind a stint inside a musty dingy cabin. any hour now, we’ll begin to load it all into the giant duffle bag the little one’s big brother carried to the same camp in the same woods four summers in a row, long long ago, it seems.

as a matter of fact, when i climbed to the attic the other afternoon, and hauled that duffle down, we unzipped it and found inside the very letter that the then-five-year-old little one had dictated to his big faraway brother.

it read, in part: “we kind of miss you. i’m kinda having fun with mom and dad. i hope you don’t get ‘flied’ away by an eagle. i hope you don’t get scared by a sloth. i hope you don’t get hit by thunder when it’s raining.”

i was standing out back, airing out the duffle, reading aloud the letter once again to the big brother to whom it was written, when the little one — the long-ago letter writer himself — came scurrying up the walk, in from a ballgame in the alley. he laughed at his five-year-old word choices. but i tell you it was a poetic passing of the north woods torch that could not have been more aptly scripted.

he took the folded white sheet of paper, and held it tight. i saw his imagination begin to count the possibilities of those impending woods: the eagle, the sloth, the thunder claps. i saw his lips curl up in smile.

then we got to work digging through the rest of the duffel, pulling out squished ping pong balls, a ping pong paddle, a shrunken bar of five-year-old soap, old band-aids. it all served as inventory, accompanied by big brother dialogue, a sort of show-‘n’-tell, a talking guidebook to sleep-away camp in the deep dark woods.

as seems to be happening so often around here these days, i am scratching my head, glancing in the rear-view mirror, asking, how’d we get here so suddenly? wasn’t that little guy the one sleeping in the car seat behind me, as we drove home without the big guy, having left him behind for the very first time? how in the world could it be that my baby, my boy who quivered at the thought of the fourth-grade outdoor ed trip (a three-night, four-day trek that had him worried for months and months in advance), how could it be that he, out of the blue, decided that, just like his big hero of a brother, he was going to camp hayo-went-ha the summer after fifth grade ends.

so here we are.

to tell the truth, i think he might be just as curious about this odd twist of travel tales as i am. most of the week, he’s been too full to finish even half a waffle at breakfast, a whopper case of butterflies having moved in and occupied the tummy real estate. he is wandering up to me, out of nowhere it seems, throwing his arms around my middle and declaring, “i love you.” and that’s not all: then he plants a kiss, lips to cheek, and holds it till i all but melt.

hmm. the deep dark woods must do that to a first-time camper.

we’ll fall asleep tonight, he and i, with curly heads aswirl with woodsy dreams. in the morning, we load the car, point north and drive.

i cannot begin to imagine just how empty i will feel when we drop him there and — after tromping to his cabin, tucking in his sheets, reminding him two or three or 10 times to use the toothpaste and sunscreen — his papa and i, both brushing back tears, swallowing harder than in a long long while, slide back into our little southbound black sedan. without him. driving 356 miles. without him. without him in the little carseat he once filled out. without him, now nearly 4-feet-11-inches long, chattering the whole way home. without him.

it’ll be 14 days and counting down.

but i can’t begin the countdown. not yet anyway. we’ve still to pack the duffle. still to quell the butterflies — his and mine. and then the prayers begin. “holy garden angels, please keep him safe.” my moonbeam baby, born in shaft of midnight light. the other half of every heartbeat. from now till the end of time.

because a mama’s gotta do what a mama’s gotta do, i was up nearly the whole night last night, typing a magazine story. so i am bleary eyed here. and will post a dispatch upon return. this here is pretty much a space holder, till the real story flows. along with tears. plenty of tears. of that i have no doubt. i am leaving my little one. in the woods. 356.58 miles away from home sweet home.