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Tag: rites and ritual

stockpiling

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it felt almost like instinct. as the weeks narrowed to days narrowed to hours, i couldn’t keep from stockpiling. soon as the boy — now sleeping just overhead, in the bed by the bend in the stairs — soon as the boy told me he’d found a ride after all, was coming home for a three-day break — fall break, officially — my fill-the-larder instincts kicked in.

lavish him in all the tastes and smells and textures and offerings he could possibly wish for. that seemed to be the propelling mission.

so i stockpiled. stockpiled pumpkin pie from the farmer’s market, grabbed a loaf of banana bread while i was at it. stockpiled cider and raspberry rugelah. ordered up a chicken pot pie from a mama who makes it delicious.

the sheets on his bed hadn’t been touched since the day after he left the room empty as empty could be, the day i scrubbed every last inch of that room, as if preserving something ineffable. the room, more relic than place to hang out these days, barely needed a flick of my wrist. but i vacuumed anyway.

the prodigal papa back in the bible, he wasn’t the only one who knows of the fatted calf. i too might have tossed a beast onto a pyre if chicken pot pie hadn’t been to his liking, the kid who rode six swift hours in the back of a minivan, the kid who all but tumbled onto the street once the four wheels pulled to a stop there at the curb.

we squeezed so tight it’s a miracle all my ribs are still in one piece. i wiped away tears (of course) and then we loped in the house, past the welcome home sign that only made him laugh, because it’s a truth in this house that you can hardly take a trip to the grocery store without finding a welcome home sign upon your return.

inside, once he kicked off his shoes, he too seemed to kick into some instinctual and ancient reflex: he walked room to room to room to see if anything had changed, to make sure all was as he’d left it. then, and only then, did he settle into his most native rite of settling in (be he gone for merely an hour or long weeks on end) as he began to circle the kitchen island in the way he (and his brother; it must be genetic) forever have done, ambulation propelling cognition it seems. story spilling upon story, each one told to the beat of his footfall.

he punctuated his stories with poking around the pantry, inspecting the fridge, and, after all the wind-up, picking a plain old box of make-your-own mac-n-cheese, the kind he’s loved since he was three. and so his first feast at home after seven and a half weeks wasn’t the hoosier mama chicken pot pie, wasn’t the homemade cranberry-studded applesauce, wasn’t the farmer-baked banana bread or the kosher-deli raspberry rugelah. it was the starchy pile of pasta shells swirled with powdery cheese turned into goop. he nearly licked the pot, my boy who’s grown three-quarters of an inch since last he was home (we pulled out the tape measure and measured).

all that spooning into his mouth must have left him exhausted, for the next stop on the homecoming tour was a flop backward onto his bed, and a sigh of pure joy like nothing i’ve heard in a very long while. he mumbled something about how glorious it was to sleep on a mattress that cared for a spine and all its spiky little vertebrae. but then he was off in dreamland, not to be heard from for hours and hours.

it didn’t take me long to realize there’s something (very much something) of the human heart involved in all the stockpiling. it’s almost as if in shopping and shlepping and stocking the shelves (and the fridge and the countertop and the blue willow plate under the cookie dome) we’re giving the blood-pumping muscle a boost. almost as if all the comestibles are edible poetry, are the extensions of our vocabulary. as if they pick up where words cannot go. as if they’ll reach deep into nooks and crannies, as if they’ll saturate every last cell that just might need to be bathed in the notion that someone loves you through and through and through. as if we can’t go the distance all on our own.

it’s almost as if the stockpiling is squeezing every last drop of that thing we call love out of the tired old muscle — the magnificent vessel — that is the human heart. that storehouse deep inside our ribs where all the love is churned, is harbored, is pumped into the ether. almost like it’s a little bitty factory, a production line of loving, that never ever dies. not even when we do, i’m utterly certain.

it all made me wonder if this might be the rhythm from here on in, in these days when the boys i love most dearly are far far from home, and their visits grow less and less frequent: will i learn to stockpile, to fill the larder with all the love i used to lavish day upon day, hour after hour, the barely-noticeable ministrations of the heart — the kiss on the forehead while they’re sleeping, the whiff of their hair while setting a plate at their place at the old maple table, even the occasional deep inhale and sigh when tossing piles of muddy sweaty clothes into the wash? will i store it all up, every last drop of it, and save it for when they come home, when it will all but ooze out of me, when i all but plant myself at the door of his sleeping room, just to watch the rise and fall of his breathing? will i ever not miss the days when i used to wear them, literally strapped into bundles across my chest? the days when their itty-bitty plump-dimpled hands were always reaching up for a lift or a hug or a squeeze round the neck? all our life long, the gestures of love shift and evolve. and while the deep caverns of the mind grow more and more nuanced and brilliant, sometimes it’s the old ways, the skin-to-skin entanglements of mother and child that i miss, that can’t be replaced, can’t be once again, all over again. IMG_0365

so we stockpile. we store it all up, and we ooze it all out for those short few hours and days when they’re close enough that we can hear their breathing, bury our nose in their necks. one deep inhale, one that’s going to need to last for weeks or months on end.

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it’s been a busy week around here: my first book review for Orion Magazine is online. twas of a beautiful, beautiful memoir, The Salt Path, about an epic journey propelled by unlikely homelessness and a dire diagnosis, one that leads to epiphany, and you can find the review here.

but the bigger news of the week is that the book i’ve been working on for months (years, actually) is officially published and stocked on the amazon bookshelves. it’s my friend mary ellen’s book, “On the Wings of the Hummingbird: A Chronicle of Joy, Grief, and Gratitude,” a collection of her beautiful breathtaking essays. here’s what i wrote when i posted something of a birthing announcement on facebook yesterday:

When Mary Ellen started her blog, “On the Wings of the Hummingbird,” on March 2, 2012, she harbored a flickering hope that someday it might lead to a book. She never dreamed she would die just four years and 11 days after “Hummingbird” first took flight. Yet her dream of a book never died. And so, after a few years of culling and sorting and weaving her essays into a whole (a labor of love that became mine when I found out a month after her death that in her will she’d appointed me “custodian of her creative work”), it is with pure joy that Mary Ellen’s family and I announce the birth of her book, “On the Wings of the Hummingbird: A Chronicle of Joy, Grief, and Gratitude.” It’s a distillation of Mary Ellen’s profound wisdom, her unending gratitude, and her unrelenting search for and discovery of joys even amid the shadow of grief and fear as she traversed the uncharted landscape she’d never imagined. It’s slim and it’s elegant and it shimmers with a beauty that was hers alone. Her words, her urgent pleadings, are sure to etch deeply into your heart. It’s available in paperback and e-book, and you’ll find it on Amazon.

two versions of covers, one for the e-book, left, and one for the paperback, right. i was constrained by the strictures of the platform, but tried to make the whole of the book as beautiful as mary ellen’s indelible words…..

how do you stockpile — and lavish — the love in your life?

chasing away the darkest night

By Barbara Mahany, Tribune Newspapers

Maybe, deep inside, it’s that we’re all still afraid of the dark. Or drawn to it.

Either way, as long as we’ve been two-legged, upright, and wise enough to wield a light-spitting wand (be it torch or battery-fueled flashlight), we’ve tiptoed toward the longest night, the winter solstice, with an odd mix of awe and wary eye over the shoulder.

Back in pagan Scandinavia, the Nordic merrymakers lit up Juul logs, slugged back mead, tended fires all night long, in hopes that their flaming fallen tree limbs would play backup to the barely working sun, or at least coax it through its feeble hours till solar reinforcements could get it up and blazing. Romans got downright riotous, decking halls with rosemary and laurel, burning lamps through the night, carrying on crazily, in hopes of warding off the spirits of darkness. And the Incas went so far as to try to tie the sun to a hitching post, a great stone column, to keep it from escaping altogether.

Fact is, from Amaterasu, in seventh-century Japan, to Ziemassvetk, in ancient Latvia, we’ve fine-tuned an alphabet of fetes to mark, to spook, to chase away the deepest darkness.

Poring through the December solstice litany, you find that, civilized or not, we humans have tried everything from feasting, gambling, pranks, gift-giving, nocturnal neighborly visits, drink, dress-up, more drink, fornication, dramaturgy, all-night vigil-keeping, and generally invoking every imaginable force of mortal pleasure to keep the Dark Side from vanquishing over everlasting Light.

It all boiled down to f-f-fear: Night would never end. Dawn would never come.

And when we succeeded, well, holy hallelujah, all sorts of whoopin’ and hollerin’ was in order.

The science behind this mid-winter darkness is simple, plain-angled geometry: The orb that is the globe doesn’t spin straight up and down, like some straight-back soldier, but rather Planet Earth is tipsy-topsy, and the winter solstice comes at the very moment the North Pole is tilted farthest from the bright star, sun. The shadow cast is never longer. Nor, the night.

Rather than trembling amid the darkness, we say, bring it on. Wrap yourself in the quietude it offers, counterpoint to December’s metastasizing madness.

For starters, it’s a fitting day to turn off not only the lights, but all things electric, writes Heather Fontenot, co-editor of Rhythm of the Home, an online magazine that honors seasonality and “slow family living.” Her winter solstice ritual is one of the loveliest we’ve encountered.

Quiet and dark are invited in, not shooshed away, come the day before the solstice . Candles are lit, a fire is kindled, winter lanterns line the walk.

It’s a day to coddle the winter critters, filling orange halves with peanut butter and birdseed, stuffing pine cones with the same. An afternoon’s walk is punctuated with a trail of birdseed sprinkled from winter-coat pockets. Supper by the fire is a simple soup and bread. Stories are read by firelight. Children are tucked in bed, while grown-ups keep vigil through the night.

Just before dawn, Fontenot wakes her children, who find sunshine bags beside their beds. The sacks, hand-sewn or not, are stuffed with oranges, nuts and golden-colored treasures. Everyone slips on a golden crown, and all tiptoe out into the dark for a predawn stroll, to watch the great orb rise once again.

Then it’s home for hot cocoa and steaming bowls of whatever warms a still-sleepy tummy.

With the sunshine safely back on course, it’s off to bed for a well-earned winter’s nap, albeit one in broad daylight.
Now that’s a solstice to light my way.

–as published in the chicago tribune, edited version here

2011’s longest night

This year, the actual astronomical moment of the winter solstice will occur at 12:30 a.m. EST Dec. 22/11:30 p.m. CST Dec. 21.

this is an essay i wrote for the winter pleasures sunday magazine of the tribune. i love the solstice ritual, and want to make it my own. the turning off of lights, kindling candles, waking children before dawn to take a solstice walk. to wake up to sunshine bags beside their bed. this piece belongs on the chair. and this is the version that was sent to all the tribune newspapers. but i wanted the chair to be a home for it too. maybe one of us will embrace the solstice in this simple illuminated way…..
merry solstice from our dark night to yours….

the picture up above is one i captured a few years ago on a snowy night when our backyard crabapple seemed nearly aflame in twinkling italian lights. my little one and i decided it was the perfect scene for this dark night…