pull up a chair

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

Tag: simple joys

making room for the hallowed

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i know, because the calendar says so, that christmas is coming, christmas is truly upon us. christmas in my heart of hearts is that one whispered pause when i feel the whole world — the stars in the heavens, the murmur from the woods, even the hustle in the marketplace — swell up with the pulse of new birth. i imagine the whole world on its knees, holding its breath, bowed down to welcome the babe birthed in a tangle of straw in the dinge of a barn where sheep and cows and a goat, maybe even a brood of clucking hens, keep up their animal chorus. that’s the christmas i reach for, the one i make room for. the one where the quiet is soaked through with holy, the one where one flickering wick shatters the darkness of night.

only, up till this minute it’s been anything but calm and bright around here.

one kid is home with the freshman-year “crud,” a concoction of germs that has him wheezing and coughing and looking up symptoms of mono on the internet. he’s been writing papers all week, so we’ve mostly been making like we’re one big study hall, with lights on till the wee, wee hours, and fridges raided at two or three in the morning. the other kid is barreling toward his last law school exam of the semester, but he took a detour in an emergency room, and scared the living daylights out of me. (he’s fine; i’m the one still shaking off the “rattles.”) and then, because why not, i decided to have a double-dose (that’s back-to-back, as in two wretched days in a row) doctorly peek at the insides (aka not one but two colonoscopies) last week, and after night no. 2, when they made me drink four liters of drain-o, i thought i might die on the cold bathroom floor. meanwhile the so-called man of the house is trying to save a great american newspaper.

all of which is to say: we need a little christmas. and hanukkah too.

so, today it begins, today i begin to make room for the hallowed to come. i’m off to the butcher in a wee little bit to rustle up my six pounds of hanukkah beast. i’ll crank the oven and fill this old house with the incense that cannot be beat: clove and bayleaf and peppercorn, a splash of red wine, a jar or three of chili sauce, then hours and hours in a 325 oven. next up (soon as the soon-to-be lawyer steps off the plane midday tomorrow), it’s off to the tree yard, where we’ll stroll and peruse and put our critical architectural eye to good use; chances are we’ll snag the same old fraser fir we always seem to snag (one too fat and too tall, and more or less to everyone’s liking).

and then, soon, will come one of the holiest moments of the whole long year: i will be alone in my kitchen on christmas morn, and except for the hiss of the simmering spices on the stove and the old schoolhouse clock incessantly counting the minutes and hours, it will be so quiet i’ll hear the rustle of wings and the squawk of the jay out the window. it’ll be inky dark outside, the first crack of light infusing the eastern sky. a star or three might still be twinkling. and here comes the best part: i’ll know that one flight up the stairs and around the bed, two beds will be filled with the boys who will forever be my heart’s reasons for being.

i’ll remember that it all boils down to the simplest of blessings: as we rub the sleep from our eyes, see first thing the bed-wrinkled faces of the ones we so love, as we block out the noise of the world, inhale the long years of loving that brought us to this holy moment, all else will melt away. we will be wrapped in the true miracle of christmas, the love that’s guided us all along the way. the love learned well by paying attention. the love that began, once upon the ages ago, when a wee blessed babe let out a cry for all the earth, and the whole world listened.

i’ll remember: for christmas to come, i need to make room. need to clear out the noise, wrap my sweet soul in those few fine things that are everything: a love that won’t die, a light that can’t be extinguished, and a belief in the undying hope that peace might be just around the next bend, somehow always in reach.

***

and here’s a christmas-y gift for all of you, a poem from mary karr’s descending theology, that draws me deeply into that holiest first night: 

Descending Theology: The Nativity
Mary Karr

She bore no more than other women bore,
but in her belly’s globe that desert night the earth’s
full burden swayed.
Maybe she held it in her clasped hands as expecting women often do
or monks in prayer. Maybe at the womb’s first clutch
she briefly felt that star shine

as a blade point, but uttered no curses.
Then in the stable she writhed and heard
beasts stomp in their stalls,
their tails sweeping side to side
and between contractions, her skin flinched
with the thousand animal itches that plague
a standing beast’s sleep.

But in the muted womb-world with its glutinous liquid,
the child knew nothing
of its own fire. (No one ever does, though our names
are said to be writ down before
we come to be.) He came out a sticky grub, flailing
the load of his own limbs

and was bound in cloth, his cheek brushed
with fingertip touch
so his lolling head lurched, and the sloppy mouth
found that first fullness — her milk
spilled along his throat, while his pure being
flooded her. (Each

feeds the other.) Then he was
left in the grain bin. Some animal muzzle
against his swaddling perhaps breathed him warm
till sleep came pouring that first draught
of death, the one he’d wake from
(as we all do) screaming.

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merry blessed Christmas, and happy hanukkah too. may your brisket be mouth-watering and your Christmas dawn be filled with overwhelming peace. xoxox

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

the day begins here…

day begins here vase blackeyed

before i’d even tumbled out of the bedsheets, i felt the low-down wobbles. happens sometimes. even on a morning when birds are in the boughs just beyond the window panes. it’s almost as if the sediment of whatever shattered in the day before is settling down, after a short night’s slumber, into the pits of your veins and your belly — and your knees, always the knees on a wobbly morning.

it’s almost as if, before your braincells awake, your body cells remember. they know there’s unsettling. they know the darkness rolled in before the day was done. needn’t be big things. sometimes the things that wake you up wobbling are simply a potage of rumbles and worries, spiced with bits of unwanted news.

once i’d splashed the cold water on my bed-wrinkled face, once i’d slipped into the shirt with the least number of holes in the elbows, i turned to tramp down the stairs.

there in the kitchen, the morning’s light awaited. the garden nodded, all dappled with dew drops.

i made a mistake in checking my phone: there lurked one of those emails you don’t want to find before the first gulp of coffee. but there it was, so i read it. and then, i glanced at the dining room table, all strewn with hundreds of pages and a fat red pen. i’ve a day of page proofing ahead of me. the last go-around with these pages that have seeped deep into my soul. these pages on which i whisper a prayer every time i begin again, start at the top, read through to the bottom, on alert, high alert, for typos and runaway commas.

i was now in high wobble.

so i did what any wobbly girl with sharp garden clippers would do: i walked straight out of the house where the wobbles had gathered, and i started to snip — the garden, that is. a long neck of yarrow here, black-eyed susans there. snip, snip, snip. next thing i knew i was clutching a fistful of august delight. and the wobbles weren’t so wobbly anymore. or at least for the moment, i’d buried my nose in the ticklish bouquet, and i wasn’t paying the wobbles much mind.

that’s what a holy morning can do for you. that’s the magic of ringing your old tired house with billows of bloom. folks driving by might think you grow bundles of things for the color, or the je ne sais quoi. ah, but you know. you know the secret: you are growing your very own apothecary out there. it’s all healing balm, and wobbly cures. it’s buoyant and tender, all at once.

it’s the deepest blessing of this holy earth: the power to heal what ails us, whatever it is.

all you need do to prompt it along is tuck a few roots deep in the dirt. then add sprinkles of rain. a few prayers and crossed fingers certainly help. never hurt. oh, and then you muster up patience. you wait. and you wait. and the globe spins around, and next thing you know it’s august, the launch of black-eyed susan season. the glorious crescendo of the midsummer garden. all the growing things — the yarrow, the hydrangea, the susans — they’re all rubbing shoulders, shoving and pushing to steal your attention. all they want is to stick out their necks, to bloom, to soak up some sunshine.

and what they give in return is pure bliss. gentle bliss. quiet bliss. a bliss that promises to bathe you in all that you’ll need to weather the day.

here’s the gardener’s pose of acceptance, accepting the gift of the garden: bend at the waist, stick your nose in the powdery parts where the yellow rubs off, now take a deep whiff, and reach for your clippers.

so it went this once-wobbly morning, when i marched out the door and into the billows, armed with my felco no. 2 clippers. i clipped and i snipped, and next thing i knew i was ready to face this fine day, not quite so wobbly this time.

what’s your garden doing to fortify you this fine day? and if not your garden, what’s your secret potion for facing a wobbly day? 

a bit of the backstory here is that i’m plowing my way through final page proofs, as that ol’ book, Slowing Time, has locked in its reservation with the printing presses, and is due to roll by the end of the month. that means every wiggle and blip on the page is demanding attention, lest it roll off the press, blips and bloops intact. 

fat ‘n’ sassy: measuring joy in micrometres

fat and sassy blueberries

it doesn’t take much. never really does. the end-game, though, is everything: the skip in the heart when sweet leaflets of joy come wafting down from the clouds.

and so it was with the blueberry basket. i was paying little mind, going about the motions of putting food to the plate, en route to the mouth, at last to the tummy. i reached in the cold box that keeps these modern conveniences — and here i wonder, are we losing something, relying on refrigeration instead of plucking them straight from the bush? so early, and already so distractible, i am…

anyway, i was mentioning the cold box, the ice box, in my grandma’s vernacular, the one that keeps those little globes of summer from going flat, like old tires on a bicycle that’s not been ridden in months. i reached and grabbed the berry basket, the one hauled home from the store, alas not the farmer’s field.

i started to pour, to dump the blue balls of summer and that’s when i noticed: these were blueberries at their most swollen, blueberries who’d pushed out their skins to the point of near bursting, and then pumped the insides with that delectable potion of sweet-tart-and-pucker. these were blueberries fat ‘n’ sassy and filled with pizazz.

and so it was, at that very moment, that i felt my heart do a bit of a double-beat.

sometimes, that’s all it takes: joy measured in micrometres. a dimension the science books tell me is used in measuring infrared radiation wavelengths, the diameter of wool fibers, and the heft of cells and bacteria. human hair, you might wish to know, measures in at some 90 micrometres (the spelling of the international bureau of weights and measures, as opposed to the ingrained auto-correct that keeps slapping my hand, trying to get me to flip my “r” and my “e,” to do away with this british affectation of science). there’s a fancy abbreviation for micrometre/micrometer, but most keyboards can’t fathom it, so among common folk, the abbreviation is “um,” as in that ungodly pause when we’re fishing for words. a water droplet of fog, for instance — yes, they measure these things (though not necessarily with yardstick) — is sized up at roughly 10 to 15 ums.

but back to the blueberries, near doubled in girth, in micrometres. a measuring tape slapped round their middles right now, at the height of summer’s rising crescendo, when the cicadas start rubbing their parts, their noise-maker parts, and the hum of near august vibrates into the night, it might make a Vaccinium corymbosum (or highbush blueberry) blush with indigo pride. they’re packin’ a wallop right now.

and that’s all it took. that one increment of immeasurable heart tickle, it was all the delight i needed to add a skip to my summery morning. the air out the window was cool, northern-michigan cool. the berries in my bowl were zaftig. the day had nowhere to go but skittering southward. i’d reached the glory spot before my coffee had cooled one joule (dipping back into the annals of science, we pull out the word for a standard measure of heat energy, or thermodynamics).

with all these berries inflated to seasonal highs, i reckon, it must be time to crank the oven and beckon the boy in this house whose favorite page of mark bittman’s how to cook everything: simple recipes for great food (macmillan, 1998) is the one that’s splattered with smeared bits of butter and very old droplets of egg white (more than 10 to 15 ums, i assure you). the boy, now asleep in his bed, dreams day and night of blueberry cobbler, the dish he calls his finest (never mind only) baking hour.

it goes something like this, and it’s more than worthy of those fat sassy globes that define summer at its puckeriest.

blueberry cobbler

yield: 6 to 8 servings

provenance: mark bittman’s dear friend john willoughby, who found it in a southern boardinghouse, so you know it must be lip-smackin’ good.

4 to 6 cups blueberries, washed and well dried.

1 cup sugar, or to taste

8 Tbsps. (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into bits, plus some for greasing the pan

1/2 cup all purpose flour

1/2 tsp. baking powder

pinch salt

1 egg

1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

1. preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Toss fruit with half the sugar, and dump in lightly buttered 8-inch square or 9-inch round baking pan.

2. combine flour, baking powder, salt and 1/2 cup sugar in food processor, and pulse once or twice (or, simply mix in a bowl, the old-fashioned way, with big spoon and muscle power). add butter and process for 10 seconds, or old-fashioned way, cut into flour-sugar mixture with pastry cutter or two knives, crisscrossing through the mound. by hand, beat in the egg and vanilla.

3. drop this mixture onto the fruit by tablespoonfuls; do not spread it out. bake until golden yellow and just starting to brown, 35 to 40 minutes. dollop onto plates. please wait for joules to dissipate, or you’re apt to burn your tongue.

savor under the summer night’s star-stitched sky. or as sweet spot to your morning’s coffee.

cobbler

‘scuse me, while i go rouse the boy, and spin the dial on the oven.

and how do you take your puckery berries?

a wee bit of housekeeping: if you peek up above, to the few bold words under the title “pull up a chair,” you might notice there’s a new line, “the book: slowing time,” which means there’s a new place to poke around here at the table. seeing as this blessed book, Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door (Abingdon Press, October 2014), is rolling toward the printing press any week now, and seeing as the real live bound galley arrived in a pouch on my front stoop last night, it seems high time to give Slowing Time its very own place to call home here where it all began. you’ll find a few bits of news, some very kind words that have rolled in under the transom in the last week or so, and whatever else you might care to know in the book department. click here to peek.

and may your third full week of july be sweet as a bowl of fat blueberries, cobblered or not….

ministrations of waiting

bulbs

they are the necessary lulls. the pauses between breath. the sometimes awful, often angst-filled hours of not knowing. of waiting.

of not yet filling in the blanks with answers just around the bend.

i am waiting now. waiting now that one editor has signed off, has passed along a final manuscript to another, to the one who decides. who deems yea, or hmm, maybe you should take another crack at this….

and if you are composed of the filaments and synapses that are mine, this is where all sorts of goblins filter in. you begin to imagine conversations. you picture emails. most of them begin, “i’m so sorry….”

you imagine the worst. you imagine, because at some deep sad level it must reflect the deepest reflection of your vision of your soul, that you’ve not measured up. will never measure up.

i’d thought it might be wise to not put these words to paper (so-called paper, anyway). but then i thought, oh geez, too many of us share this plight. we doubt ourselves before we’re given one chance to rise up, to shine.

so here i wait. and while i wait, i realize that the wisest thing for me to do — besides turn the dial on the little voices that fill my head, that convince me of my unworthiness — is to get about the business of tending to the oft-pushed-aside quotidian. the season’s turning calls to me. the night’s chilled air begs attention. there are bulbs to tuck into the gashes of the earth. there are long-frond ferns who beg for warmth inside, who promise green through winter. or at least through thanksgiving.

i missed last year’s call to tuck in for winter slumber. i was far away, and could not tend to the bulbs, the fronds, the birds that have come to depend on me. so i’ve been out already this morning, out since well before the inky dawn was rubbed away. i was out with my buckets of seeds, i was out unearthing bulbs from the layers of crinkled newspaper that blanket them, that i pray kept them safe enough through the night that grew colder while i was not paying attention.

the earth does that: turns on and on without heed to whether we are paying attention. if we notice, if we tuck the bulbs before they freeze, well then glory is the prize come springtime. if not, if we blew it, weren’t worthy of the glory, well then the earth will not crack, no green shoot will rise, no heirloom hyacinth or bread-and-butter daffodil will trumpet.

i will soothe myself with the apothecary of the home and garden that i’ve claimed as my surest cure for almost anything that ails me. i will slow cook. and dig in the garden. i will sit in dappled light, with sweaters round my shoulders. i will drink in arcing sunlight, and winged shadow. i will tend the tender shoots and leaves that depend on me. i will practice believing that the pause is not about my falling short, but rather simply for another reason.

i will try. this practice doesn’t come without its stumbles. this practice is emboldened with a sturdy trowel, and a box of bulbs begging to be tucked where they will thrive. after a long winter’s pause.

do you too suffer the plight of the deep gnawing misgiving? the cursed lack of faith? the scourge of never thinking you are good enough? 

free books

in all those many days and weeks and months and years of feeling tethered to my telephone, of certainty that bosses were peeking in my office window, taking notes, counting up the sentences i typed per week, awarding or withholding little gold paper stars…

in all the many days and weeks and months and years of bumping down the train tracks, past the el stops where passengers stumbled on, took their seats beside me, sometimes smelling like old fish wrap, sometimes all but vibrating with the hip-hop thumping in their ears and spilling down their tattooed necks, the flow of expletives sky-diving straight to my ears, where i’d spend the ride now listening in (so much for a morning’s meditation)….

in all those many, many moments, i’d not often dawdled, lost in reverie about how, once freed from paycheck certitude, i’d define my liberation in trips to the library, that many-storied treasure trove of circuitous discovery, endless possibility, mindful gorging, and, well, free books.

but so it is, and so it quickly did become.

i was severed from my old life, my newspaper life, for all of 17 hours when i found myself, on a drizzly february saturday morning, strolling straight for what i still call the card catalog, although it’s now a box with keyboard, and you type the title that you’re searching for, or the author, or you spin the roulette wheel and type odd keywords, just to see what might pop up.

once i found the dewey decimals of the book i had in mind, i began my hunt: i descended to the underground of my little village book house, and i played follow the numbers till i got to the proper shelf.

i don’t know about you, but for me, searching for those itty-bitty aforementioned digits is a supreme exercise in attention deficit disorder. and i am mad, crazy mad, for the whole distracted round-about.

oh, look, i think, as i scan the spines, there’s a tome i’ve long meant to read, and here it is standing ever-so-politely, having waited years perhaps for one greedy paw to yank it off the shelf, tuck it to the bosom, haul it home. where, if all goes according to literary plan, its pages will be turned, its story unspooled yet one more time.

i tell you that first trip to the shelves invigorated the whole of me, right down to my once-enslaved soul. i swear i heard a chain link snap. i was free. i was wholly entitled to indulge in any book i wanted, any time. all for the cost of slipping out my library card from the too-tight slot where it lives inside my wallet.

you would have thought i’d downed a dram of revitalizer tonic, the way the pink rosied up my cheeks, the way the boing electrified what had been my sorry shuffle. i strolled out of that library, three or four books tucked tautly under my arms, and i headed home. i had a window seat, and plenty of pages to occupy me for the day.

apparently, it’s addictive, whatever that revitalizing tonic is. i can’t seem to keep away.

why, i’ve become a regular at the check-out desk. so much so, that they now call me by name, and we have marvy conversations about the books, the demise of civilization, the librarian’s surprise 60th birthday fete, complete with mouthwatering description of the teeny carrot cake she baked for her toddler grandson, who wouldn’t be allowed up past bedtime when the big cake was being ignited and sliced into so many slivers.

i tell you the key to civil discourse just might be rediscovered — before it dies its undeserving death — at the faux-maple desk where the due dates get stamped on all the borrowings.

what’s most delicious about this new-found library-bound freedom is that every time the scene’s replayed i feel the same hallelujah chorus rise up from deep inside. it has come to epitomize the full-throttle glory of living by choice instead of whatever was the old way, the these-hours-are-not-mine way, when my time, it seemed, belonged to someone else.

and there is something eternally bracing about realizing, with every pore, that each and every hour is a blessing, is a choice, is a miracle, and that it is our holiest calling to make each one matter.

now, of course, there are dirty clothes to be tossed in the rub-a-dub machine, and there are freezers to be filled with meatballs, bread and broccoli, and there are last night’s pots to scrub.

but if, in the course of any given day, we can put our hands together, make like a bowl with our palms and our fingers pressed tight, if we can sink that fleshy ladle into blessed waters that just might quench us, fill us up in all our parched-dry places, well then don’t we anoint the day, make it all the more sacred, because we live with the knowing that we don’t get two spins around this game board, and today’s the day to be embroidered with the best french knots you know?

and so it is, quite simply, with my increasingly-trod path to the free-book stall.

it’s a super-charged trip, under a mile door-to-door-to-door, that takes my heart, my soul, my whole imagination to places i’ve not been in a long, long while.

and it’s as straightforward as this: my desk nowadays is littered with scraps of paper, on which i scribble titles, authors, books i want to read, books someone’s deemed essential, or books that merely feed my latest fancy.

i tuck the scraps on that little hollow on the dashboard, where long ago, the ashtray was. and then, when i remember, when i’m out motoring on some humdrum course, and i glance down and see my scribble, i start to feel the deep-down tingle: i’m on my own time now, and there is always time to turn toward the three-story temple to ideas big and little.

i slip the old wagon into park, and i feel the spring that resuscitates my step. it’s a bit of abracadabra when the big glass doors slide open, swoop me right in without having to knock or ring the bell. it’s a house that’s mostly open (the shelves do nap at night), and i am welcome to binge, biblio-binge without remorse. i can fill my arms with as many books as i can carry.

in just the last two months, i’ve cleared a shelf of horse books — only because i’d toured my old kentucky bluegrass roots, and i came home curious. and right now, i’m onto e.b. white, one of my all-time heroes, a champion, a charmer, a writer who has made me cry because a spider died, and just the other day, when i read his 1947 essay, “death of a pig,” i cried so hard i spotted-up the nearly-yellowed page.

it’s all for free, which is a mighty fine thing for a girl who knows no paycheck.

but even finer is the truth that a life with room to turn toward the library, on a whim, is a life well lived. and one that convinces me, i am free, free at last.

i have a hunch that this old table is full of folk who wear out their library cards, or who wish they did. two questions: one, what little morsels are now perched on your must-read list, and two, if you were through the powers of magic given a whole day off to do whatever you wished, what might be the places to which you’d go running, and what heaven would you find there?

the balm that is the rhythm of routine

i’ve known for years that i was a creature of habit, a girl who liked her days to unfold with familiar rhythm. you might call me a homebody. a nesty girl. or worse.

what i know is that the familiar soothes me. i sink into sublime inner hum when i unlock the door and come back home. when i hear the ticking of the clock i have wound 3,000 times. when my foot hits the one odd floorboard, just to the east of smack-dab middle at the top of the stairs, a creak that tells me i am here in the house that holds me. a creak i know is coming before i ever get there. a creak that sings the song of home.

i like when my car practically steers itself to the grocery. knows the corner where to turn, knows the bumps along the way. i like passing under the heavy limbs of oak and ash and elm along the way; limbs i’d notice were missing if the shadows weren’t there one morning.

i am a girl comforted by the balm that is my everyday routine.

and right in here, where all around me seas are roiling, shifting, shaking, i am soothed hour after hour by the little stitches in the whole cloth of my life.

in the living room, right now, five fat boxes stand in sentry rows. nearly two-thirds filled, they hold the whole of my firstborn’s college life. they’ll be sealed shut soon. a new address — AC # 1056; i’ve already memorized — slapped on front. shipped east. to be unpacked on one wobbly sunday coming soon, when for the last time i will try my hand at putting order to his life. or at least his dorm room.

my little one too is about to take a big step for a not-so-big boy. nearly lost in all the college swirl is the fact that the little one has left behind his “little school,” and is moving on to middle school, a school with many floors, and combination locks. a school where four times as many kids will roam the halls.

all around, the world i know is just about to change.

and i find anchoring, find knowing, in the simple building blocks of my every day, the way each morning i splash my face, slide into rumpled, hem-torn shorts, hip-hop down the stairs, click on the radio to the voices who greet me every morning. the way i make my coffee every day — five scoops coffee, three shakes cinnamon, water cold from the filter.

i find my shoulders wrapped, my back steadied, by that first stroll through the garden. find myself cheered by the pumpkin vine that’s set down roots amid my black-eyed susans. i like that i keep measure of its bold insurrection, the way it’s up and inching through the beds, hellbent on making a kitchen plot of my measly perennials.

i am heartened, too, by the red-cloaked gang of cardinals who chatter and pester me for more seed.

i am soothed knowing that they know they can count on me. i will be there, they must have figured out, like clockwork. i’m a girl they can set their clocks by.

i love knowing all the checkers at the grocery. love knowing them by name, by story. love knowing they know me enough to ask, “is he gone yet?” love knowing that when they see the volume of the grocery bags, they know the answer’s “not quite yet.”

when i think ahead to that spot around the bend that i can’t quite imagine yet — the morning and the days when his absence is first felt, when it’s raw, when the silence is so loud it makes me want to scream — i know already that my soothing, my balm, will come from all the little chores that steady me, that fill me.

i’ll cut stems from the garden, arrange the daisies and the black-eyed susans and the queen anne’s lace. i’ll fold the laundry. fill the pantry shelves.

i’ll try not to wince when i pass up the pack of cookies that he loves, knowing if i bought them they’d sit untouched till thanksgiving, when he comes home for a few short days.

i’ll try not to miss the teetering piles of his T-shirts, socks and gym shorts on the ironing board downstairs. try not to miss that the laundry basket won’t be nearly as heavy anymore.

and when the sting comes, when the salty stream of missing him fills the cuts and scratches on my arms and legs and heart, i will turn once again to the time-worn knowledge of my heart: i’m a girl who hums when i am bound on all sides by the familiar, the tick and tock of home. when my house and garden do their job, and shelter me from the storm that is life simply moving forward…..

for the blessing of home, of garden. for the gift of all these blessings. for the gift of a boy i love so much his absence will be a hole inside my heart. for all of this, i am so deeply grateful.

are you soothed by the familiar? do you find music in the same old sounds inside your house? are you a creature of habit? or do you find glory in the new, the exotic, the not-yet discovered?

in the dark

no one had a clue it was coming.

then, stumbling through a monday morning’s making of coffee, i heard some chatter on the radio about high winds that had halted two trains, a coupla counties away. i glanced out the window, saw nothing but sunshine, felt the start of another hot day.

hmm, i thought, what station is this, did someone jiggle my dial? there’s no storm for miles around. is this some other state they’re talking about?

then, from the little box that sits by the knives, came word that this so-named “ferocious storm” would be hitting yet another town, a town i knew to be, oh, 30 or 50 miles from the first ones they mentioned, in a mere 10 minutes. i did the map in my head, thought, no way, short of a ramrodding locomotive–or a hellbent tornado–could any winds sweep across that many miles in so few minutes.

and then, just as i was cocking my eyebrows, beginning to gather the message, they mentioned that a mere five minutes after that incredible span, the storm would be rushing the lakefront. and they named the leafy town where i live.

why, we had a boy out on a lagoon at the very instant these words came over the wires. another boy, the little one, had woken up early and helped me dash to click on the TV in time to see a picture, on the national weather channel, mind you, from our very own not-so-far-away airport, where the winds were all whirly and quite smoky gray. egad.

not a minute later our sunshine was swallowed by black clouds. clouds that somehow cast an eery green-yellow, like the rim of a bruise after a day or two, when the deep purple bull’s-eye of the place you got bumped goes the color of neptune, or the mold on your overdue cheese.

before i could yell, “get to the basement,” the winds started howling, the trees bent, nearly snapped. lights flickered once, then twice, then kerpluey, lights out.

for the next 56 hours.

which, when your nice warm refrigerator is turning your larder to ruins, when you cannot open the windows for the stifling heat outside, when you take to the car to crank up the A-C for a short drive to nowhere, is a very long time.

once i’d surrendered the food, either tucked it away in the ice box of my elderly next-door neighbor who happens to have a back-up generator, or the freezer of a dear across-town friend who was lucky enough not to live on our blown-out grid, and chalked up the rest to nature’s merciless toll, i settled into the mystery of this pioneer moment.

made like a girl on a black-out adventure.

i discovered, of course, the beautiful buried beneath all the darkness.

it didn’t take long.

a few hours after the sun finally dropped beyond the horizon, a few hours after my eyes had seen anything bright, i happened to glance up over the tree line. i saw the brightest, most heavenly orb i’d studied in a long, long time.
it was the moon, of course, and i marveled.

realized once again, as i traced its beams across the ruffled leaves of the trees, across the sharp-angled shingles of the roof, and down to the brick path where i stood, just how majestic that moon must have been in a long-ago world where every night brought blanket of darkness.

i whispered benediction, and made a promise i hope isn’t futile. “dear moon, don’t let me take you for granted.”

not long after, i saw that the fireflies were blinking more boldly than in a long, long time.

it’s not often, i realized, that power goes out in the summer. so instead of studying ice crystals by moonlight, i got the gift of the firefly flicker.

quite a pile, the bright lights of darkness.

then, later still, i stepped outside to see if i could catch a breeze. i was chomping a midnight apple, and let my eyes roam all around, drinking in the layers of shadow. i must have looked up right away, because right away i was struck by all the extra stars studding the sky that very dark night.

and on it went.

when i happened to be tiptoeing around, somewhere near 3 o’clock in the morning, i noticed for the first time ever, i think, that fireflies pull all-nighters. they keep up the flicker, it seems, till the dawn shooshes them off to their beds.

and so it went.

all week, it was candlelight and conversation. the first night, in full little-house-on-the-prairie mode, it was lanterns and dinner, and whatever we could salvage from the warming-up fridge.

the next, when the little one and his papa high-tailed it to our freezer friend’s fully-operating telly (the better to take in the all-star game), the college-bound boy and i sat in the dark at the kitchen table and sipped prosecco, our words lit only by one flickering candle and the magic of a whole evening alone, with no blinks or beeps to disturb us.

i drank deeply, i tell you, of that rare gift, knowing full well that all too soon the boy would be off a thousand miles away, and i’d be longing for such a night, alone in the dark with my deep-thinking child, there at the shadowy table. i knew right then the terrible winds had brought me a forever treasure.

in the end i wound up with my fridge purged of bottles and condiments that had long exceeded their statutes of limitation. who needed the maraschino cherries from three summers ago, the ones i’d never quite managed to toss, but now had to?

and once all those overdue jars and bottles were gone, and the milk and the cheeses dumped, sadly, into the garbage, i scrubbed that fridge–and the basement freezer–top to bottom, inside and out.

i am back in business now. lights, once again, go on whenever you flick the magical switch (and i am still marveling, two days later).

the fridge is stocked with whatever we need to get by. the freezer awaiting my generous contributions.

i’ve hauled out the vacuum, and sucked up a week’s worth of grit clomped in on the bottoms of baseball cleats. i caught up on the loads of laundry piled high in the soon-musty basket.

and now my sweet little boy, the one quite bothered by all of the darkness, he’s come down with some germ that is making him all hot and achy.

this very long week has come to an end.

and i’ll not soon forget the beauty i found in the darkness.

were you in the dark this week? where did you find the beauty? and if this week wasn’t one that brought you darkness, where have you found it on the dark days you’ve known?
p.s. i always hate it on days when my writing has to come in bits and spurts. it’s hard to spin lines when nursing a sick little child. so please see through the bumps, and pardon the lack of a flow……

catch joy…

it is the antidote to madness. it is portable. and i do believe it shall become a lifelong practice.

i started this week. gave it a name. exercised it as often as i could.

i call it catching joy. it is living on two planes at once. making sure one side of your brain stays on patrol, and at watch, while the other side goes about its nutty, hair-frazzling business.

it is more conscious than the otherwise ho-hum knack for catching yourself sighing, saying, “oh my, this is a wonderful moment.”

catching joy practically involves a butterfly net.

it is an active pursuit of paying attention. of cloaking yourself in joy when you stumble upon it. of taking that scant slice of soulful delight, piercing it with a fork and sucking the juice right out of it. or, perhaps, slathering it on, whatever the joy is, like a sour-cream-thick slather of makes-me-feel-velvet-all-over.

it is setting the little alarm in your head to clang when all of a sudden you realize, “oh my, this is good. very good. this smells/sounds/looks/feels magnificent. just shy of heavenly.”

heck, there are days, i am certain, when the bar needn’t be set quite so high. when, “gosh, this is purdy fine here,” is more than good enough.

the point, though, is that even amid the mad-dashing, huffing and puffing, there come–unannounced, but regally draped–moments that will, if we let them, feed the pits of our souls, restore the marrow before it runs out.

and what we must do, if we intend to understand their essentialness, their necessity, as if pure oxygen inhaled through a tube, is we must not let the lovelinesses waft by without duly noting every last ounce of it.

if we can pause, hit the soak-it-in button, well, then i’m certain we can double the bang for our buck.

say, for instance, we are dashing across a grocery store parking lot. and there, fluttering by, flutters a butterfly. the first of the season. if we pause mid-lope, if we allow the watchguard side of our brain to shout out in glee, “oh, golly, there’s something wonderful. there’s something to notice,” we might find a new spring in our step, a true gratitude that we happened to be in that place [cracked-asphalt, traffic-jammed grocery store parking lot] at that time [just before anyone at home noticed we were flat out of milk and bananas].

here’s how it went for me this week, once i started to play my new game, the one we’ll call joy catching, or catch joy for short.

(i know how it went, by the way, because i added paper and pencil to the version i played along at home. soon as i caught any version of joy, i scribbled it down, finding, as i have over the years, that no. 2 lead pencils, and/or blue ink delivered by ball point, help me commit things to memory.)

my catch-joy list for the week:

i found myself stopped at a stop light with two lanes of traffic steering south. suddenly, from behind, i heard a siren shrieking my way. instinctively, as i’ve done since i was a wee little girl, as my boys have seen me and mimicked a million times over the years, i made the sign of the cross, whispering prayers that whoever was hurt would be delivered to safety and wholeness.

at the exact same time, in the exact same tempo, a woman at the wheel of the car next to mine, made the same sign of the cross. ditto. in duplicate. it made me smile through two more stop lights that there would be two of us, side by side, both playing out the catholic school girl’s act of veneration and hope, instilled and still knee-jerk after all of these decades.

that same day, i do believe, one when my morning demanded i drive like a race car driver, and ferry my firstborn from orchestra hall to a river 10 miles away, i found my car taking a right, when it was supposed to be taking a left (after said child was safely delivered, of course).

why, that ol’ station wagon steered itself straight to the seasonal garden store, the one with the cyclone fence and all the red radio flyer wagons. refusing to brake, that ol’ car pulled right into a parking space and suddenly the driver-side door flung wide open.

i made that out to mean that i was supposed to get out of the car, walk through the row upon row of pansies, and gosh, bring home some babies for planting. (i did as instructed.)

the joys that i caught in that particular outing were the two pots of forget-me-nots, each a cloud of droplets of blue, blue the color of sky on a june afternoon. forget-me-nots, with their delicate emphatic charm, have always been near the top of my spring favorites list, right up there with nodding lily-of-the-valley, and getting-ready-to-burst viburnum, the intoxicant of april and may that soon will explode right outside my kitchen window.

there was more joy caught in my net as i knelt in my garden, my knees sinking into the lush, sun-warmed loam, and my fingers brushing back a clump of old leaves to discover the earliest green nubs of the jack frost brunnera i dug up and carried here when we up and moved from my much-loved first garden.

again i caught joy when i traipsed into a quirky-but-charming downtown flower shop that’s packed to the rafters with blooms, and walked out with a clutch of hyacinths, muscari and apricot-throated narcissus, now perched in a cobalt blue vase and broadcasting its vernal perfume all through my kitchen.

you get the exercise.

and let me emphasize the power behind it. we have a choice, it seems. we can barrel through our days as if an obstacle course that threatens to swallow us whole, should we make a mis-step. we can be left at the end of the day splayed and gasping for air, numb at the thought of another tomorrow.

or, we can punctuate the hours. inject serendipitous whimsy. gather up joy the color of sunshine. we can collect pearls of delight, as if the beads on a rosary. we can hold onto these marvels, turn them over and over–in our hearts and our minds. we can lift each one to the light, and commit their truth to our souls: even on the darkest of days, a scant ray of light escapes from the sun.

if we’re blessed, if we’re wise, we understand and we do as inspired: we catch joy, we store it in jars, lined up on the windowsill.

all we need do is glance at the sill, to see just how blessed any old day might become.

if we commit to the practice, the sacred art of searching and seizing random shards of joy, wherever they come.

if we make it the sport of our life. and have oodles of joy jars to show for it.

what joys did you catch this week?

and before i go, a most blessed birthday to my dear vpk, mother of the one i married, but more than that a bright light and beacon to me and my boys.
and to my ella bella cupcake who turned 2 yesterday, you my sweet, are joy caught and held close to my heart, forever and ever.
p.s. the beauties up above are from the flower wonderland i wandered into for work this week. oh, what a job. what a joy. caught just for you….

making my list and checking it twice

i know how the fellow feels. being something of a list-maker and checker myself.

poor chubby ol’ elf. all those roofs on which to glide to a stop. all those sooty old chutes to get stuck in, what with a whatchamahoojie poking out from the pack.

after all these many, many christmases here, the jolly one is still making appearance. the little one teeters in that netherworld of probably not believing when he’s out on the school yard, but here, where it’s safe, where it’s home, where there’s no harm in extending the tease, he plays like he’s a believer.

uncanny, i know.

but sweet.

and so, as in so many uber-sized catholic families, as in the town where i grew up, when the gap between the top of the dozen and the wee one at the bottom was maybe 18 years, or 15, or for the gestational superstars, perhaps only 12, we are sending one off to college with drop-down from santa.

it’s the morning of christmas that has long been my favorite, those wee early hours stitched with suspense, with waiting, with listening for footsteps from the rooms up above.

i will be the earliest riser, if my christmas wish comes true. i’ll be alone in this old house where the whole of the morning wraps me in comfort and tidings of joy.

i’ll tiptoe down in the near-dark of dawn, plug in the lights on the tree. turn up the flame under the banged-up pot on the stove, the one that holds “smell,” my now legendary mix of orange peels and cinnamon sticks, bay leaves and cloves, all simmering in a murky pot of boiled-down clove water.

i’ll kerplunk into boots and trudge out in the snow. the birds, top on my list, as i call out, “merry christmas, babies, here’s breakfast.” i think for the holiday i’ll dump cranberries in with their suet bits and sunflower seed.

back in the house, now that the chimney will have been cleared, i’ll lay down the logs and kindle the flames. no fires allowed till the wide elf makes his delivery, but i’ll be the first to see that, by then, he’s sprinkled sweet somethings all about the room, one pile per each boy.

i’ll check the cookies and milk, left out the night before. and sure enough, there will be nibbles, and a ring in the glass. that ol’ elf never fails to leave crumbs and a dirty glass, besides.

but it’s all right, we understand. he’s places to go, and chimneys to climb.

won’t be long till i hear the percussive thud of the boy in the bed leaping awake (the one rare morn when getting him up does not involve trumpets and icy buckets of water). next up on the sound panel will be the little one begging the big one to please please get up. and the big one, inherently sweet, will oblige, will slide in his slippers, will wipe the sleep from his eyes, and together they’ll tromp down the steps, round the bend.

and i, in classic santa mode, will stand back and beam, watching the boys who i love with all of my heart take in the wonder and loot that fell from the sack.

and for the 18th christmas that i’ve been so blessed, i’ll feel my ol’ thumper fill up and spill–the magic of santa, indeed and indeed, is that every once in a very rare while we get to step into magic and let it play out.

same props. same story. year after year after year.

and may we all live happily ever after.

merry blessed christmas to you and to yours. to the little wee ones who fought to get here. to the big kids who climbed their own mountains this year. whatever are the stories that brought you to this holy winter’s morn, hallelujah and joy everlasting. may you find your bliss this christmas.