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

Tag: summer camp

wisdom: extracting / seeking

 

before i pack my bags for summer camp for nerdy nerds (the so-called camp i’m going to has a pack list rife with yellow highlighters, five-tab binder, reams and reams of pages; dictionary, encouraged), i am dipping back into my nursing days, and wielding ice bags and ibuprofen like nobody’s business.

i’ve been up every hour on the hour through the night, employing what amounts to a giant-sized sock filled with ice, tied round the not-yet-swollen cheeks of my now-college-bound kid, the one who had his wisdoms extracted yesterday. excavated would be a more apt choice of verb, the friendly oral surgeon whispered, suggesting muscle (perhaps pick axes?) — more than usual — might have been involved. not exactly the last hurrah of high school anyone would wish for…

soon as we round the bend on impending swelling, soon as pudding and jello gives way to mushy mac-and-cheese (a second-day staple), once this escapade in extracting/excavating wisdom fades into the sunset, i am seeking wisdoms all my own: i’ll scramble to pack the last of my poetries and hop a plane to NYC, whereupon i’ll glide my way to new haven, aka elm city, where an empty apartment waits for me, and a whole div school besides.

in the rarest fluke of my non-adventurous days, i somehow found myself signing up for a one-week summer course, “reading poetry theologically,” at yale divinity school, a bastion of ecumenicism (with a strong dash of anglicanism) since 1822. i’d have signed up for this first week too, when a tantalizing class in henri nouwen was stretched across the days, but those wisdom teeth got in my way, so i’m signed up for next week’s poetry, taught, curiously, by a professor named david mahan, and i’ll soon find out if he’s my distant cousin who’s done away with his closing syllable, lobbed off his exclamatory y. (ours is not a name — with or without all its syllables — you bump into very often.)

i never was much for camp of the mosquito-and-sunscreen variety. never did like that kool-aid poured from vats, the red stuff they called bug juice, as if that would warm me to its redness. but i am positively twitterpated at the notion of making believe i’m back in school. the thought of loping down the cobblestones, my book bag swinging by my side, well, it’s akin, i’d think, to how cinderella felt when she traded in her whisk broom for her sparkly shoes.

for anyone who wants to play along at home, the reading list of poets (a brilliantly eclectic mix of voices, the very sort i love the most) includes: gerard manley hopkins, wendell berry, scott cairns, lucille clifton, denise levertov, mary karr, langston hughes, louise erdrich, and the glorious (new to me) r.s. thomas, an anglican priest from wales, often ranked as one of the three great english-language poets of the 20th century, alongside yeats and eliot, and often called “poet of the hidden God.” (be still my hidden heart.)

as was the case back in our year of thinking sumptuously, when in one academic year my appetite for binging at the course-list trough was forever whetted, i’ll send along a dispatch of whatever poetic morsels stir my hungry heart.

and now, before the timer pings reminding me to grab an ice pack, here’s the latest book for the soul, an exploration deep into islam, and my review of Muhammad: Forty Introductions, by Michael Muhammad Knight, as it ran in the pages of the Chicago Tribune last week:

‘Muhammad: Forty Introductions’ is a soul-stirring primer on Islam

IMG_1929‘Muhammad: Forty Introductions’

By Michael Muhammad Knight, Soft Skull, 320 pages, $16.95

Review by Barbara Mahany Chicago Tribune

When Michael Muhammad Knight — whom The Guardian of London has called “the Hunter S. Thompson of Islamic literature” — set out to teach a religious studies seminar on classical Islam at Kenyon College in Ohio, he promptly realized that no single snapshot served to introduce his mostly non-Muslim students to the great prophet Muhammad, “Messenger of God.”

Instead, the professor settled on 40 such snapshots, or “introductions,” drawn from a broad swath of voices — the canonical as well as the marginalized — citing ancient Islamic scholars, French philosophers, and even “Star Wars” (though not in equal measure).

His “Muhammad: Forty Introductions” is part gonzo devotional, part Muslim primer, and, ultimately, a soul-stirring portal into a personal vision of Muhammad.

The narrations Knight turned to are a bedrock of Islam: the hadith, an oral tradition of “news” or “reports” of Muhammad’s sayings or doings, a tradition that traces its lineage of authenticity through a chain of teachers, resting in proximity to the prophet himself. Hadiths — apart from the Qur’an — serve as instruction for Muslims looking for guidance in how to live their lives. As Knight put it, “I want to know Muhammad’s way of being human.”

Knight is a novelist and essayist who converted to Islam at 16, traveled to Islamabad at 17 to study at a madrasa, then got a master’s degree at Harvard Divinity School and a Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina. In gathering 40 hadiths, the author followed the ancient Islamic literary tradition of the arba’in, wherein scholars over the millennia have collected and curated 40 hadith, often by theme. For Knight, who rose to literary fame with his 2003 self-publication of his novel “The Taqwacores,” now considered a cult classic and a “manifesto for the Muslim punk movement,” his “Forty Introductions” is a decidedly contemporary collection, reaching into queer theology, feminist commentary and core Islamic teachings.

Something of a crash course in Muhammad, Knight’s intellectually charged collection of fragments makes for a multi-textured, many hued mosaic. In a revelatory aside, Knight acknowledges that for every student of Muhammad, the prophet becomes a “montage of images, an arrangement of moving parts.” This fragmentation is inevitable — and necessary — he writes: “the ingredients of my Muhammad often come to me as shattered pieces that have been chipped away from something else.”

Alternating between the professorial and the personal, Knight hits his highest notes when he pushes away from the seminar table and bares his own soul. “Some hadiths soften my heart and bring me to tears,” he writes toward the end of the book. “I cling to the image of Muhammad as a gentle grandfather who lets his daughter’s sons Hasan and Husayn climb onto his back as he prays.”

While the introductions he’s chosen cover a full range and complexity — from Muhammad’s physical appearance to his family life, infallibility, legal authority and mystical nature — and while Knight boldly puts one interpretation or argument up against another (a seamless synthesis is hardly the point here), it seems particularly telling that he chooses as his closing introduction Islam’s parallel to the Golden Rule:

“The Messenger of God (God bless him and give him peace) said, ‘One of you does not believe until s/he loves for another what is loved for self.’ ”

And then, Knight reminds why this, of all teachings in all religions and world views, matters most in the end.

“Claimants upon a religious tradition have numerous modes by which they can disqualify each other as illegitimate. You pray wrong; you dress wrong. You read the wrong books, or perhaps read the right books wrong. Your prophetology is wrong. Your preferred scholarly authorities are wrong. Your opinions about permissible and forbidden acts are wrong. This hadith reminds us that we can get everything right … and still fail as Muslims on the grounds that we’re selfish pricks.”

Muhammad, the professor reminds us, came “to perfect the noble traits.” For emphasis, he adds: “Muhammad reminds us that becoming less of a selfish prick would confront many of us as an epic struggle. Being a good person isn’t the easy part.”

Knight, by way of his 40 Muhammadan introductions, illuminates the way.

Barbara Mahany’s latest book, “The Blessings of Motherprayer: Sacred Whispers of Mothering,” was published last spring.

Twitter @BarbaraMahany

back to the summer-camp question: what would be your rendition of the ideal mosquito-free summery week away, with or without a tent? 

and before we go, i am sending the biggest smushiest birthday blessings to beloved nan, whose big birthday is today, and beloved amy, whose blessed day was yesterday. love you both to the moon and stars and back…..xoxoxo

humpty dumpty powder and other tricks of motherhood

humpty dumpty had a great fall…all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put humpty together again….

indeed, and thank goodness, not all the falls that befall our little ones are great ones.

sometimes, they’re bumps.

sometimes brought on by being brave in the woods. sometimes by being brave in the woods for two long weeks you thought might never end. sometimes, they’re stirred by spending the night in a tent on the side of a sand dune, on a night when the thunder and lightning would not cease, when hail pummeled the tent flaps, when the counselors at 3 a.m. shooshed you onto the bus for safekeeping, while they struggled to stake down the flipped-over tents, and all you could manage was to pray for dawn’s first light, and a cure for the ache in your belly.

and so, when you get to the end of that shell-shaking spell in the woods, when your mama pulls up to the dried meadow at the edge of camp, and you leap out of your flip-flops to throw yourself into her arms, you need your mama to reach deep into her bag of mama tricks and pull out the humpty dumpty powder.

you need your mama to put you together again.

that’s what mamas do best. that’s job no. 1 in the old mama bible.

oh, sure we birth those babes back at the launch. but from then on in, it’s our supreme holy calling to be there for bee stings and dog bites and nights without end in the woods.

and it is indeed how i am spending these hours, ever since i picked up my brave little camper there in the woods.

didn’t take long, not more than a minute, to see that this hadn’t quite been a picnic, no mere frolic on the shores of torch lake. and it wasn’t simply the stench coming from his toes, there in the back of the homeward-bound rescue mobile.

there were clues, the sort a mama can read without prompt, that the boy sound asleep for most of the car ride, straight through michigan and half indiana, had utterly and completely tapped out his stay-strong tank.

heck, he’d survived on PB&J for the better part of 13 lunches and 13 dinners. even the night of the all-camp banquet, when ribs and baked alaska highlight the menu, the boy i love filled up on “four ears of corn and candy.” his words, exactly.

no wonder he came home sun-browned and skinny.

so, besides the bottle of bleach and the buckets for multiple pre-soaks (half the loam of the woods came home stuck in our little dude’s socks), we have pulled out all stops here on the home-team recovery squad.

we’ve showered him with kisses, and filled the bathtub with bubbles. we’ve cooked up cherry-filled pancakes, drizzled cherry syrup over slabs of turkey bacon, concocted “torch lake sunrises,” an orange-juice-and-cherry-concentrate breakfast mocktail.

we’ve squeezed triple-antibiotic ointment into oozing blisters on the sides of both feet. we’ve fluffed a pillow, unfurled a blanket and rubbed itty-bitty circles there where the headache pounded.

but the best cure of all was the big brother who’d once roamed the same woods, downed the same baked alaska. he knew the camp songs, the lore, the legend. he got the kid laughing again.

come dinner time, we let the little guy order up a feast of favorites: from-scratch mac-‘n’-cheese, ditto the applesauce, corn on the cob (minus the candy, his mama insisted), all washed down with cherry pie ala mode.

in no time, we suspect, our little camper oughta be back to his usual mostly-unflappable self.

but one of the breath-taking truths of motherhood is that you’ve got a rare, front-row seat on the naked work of growing up and learning to be brave.

i’ll never forget that kid standing at the window, just two weeks ago, the night before we left him at camp. he was staring up to the starlit dome, and, even there in the dark, you could read the prayers spill off his lips, and the way he wrapped it all up with a sign of the cross, and a tip of his palm to the heavens, just like the ballplayers do. he was beside himself with worry, he told us. could not imagine going two weeks without seeing a glimpse of us.

but he made it. he did it.

and that’s what i keep whispering in his ear.

“you did it, sweetheart. you did the very thing you thought you couldn’t.”

and if, for the next coupla days, we need to stoke you with buckets of cherries, and lavish you with kisses, we’ll get you steady on your feet. because we’ve seen you, backlit by the night sky, in your hour of near-despair, and we’ve felt our own lungs swell, at the depth of your courage: you took to the woods, little one, and you found your way home, shaken but not cracked.

tell me your tales of profiles in courage you’ve witnessed up close and personal. humpty dumpty powder not needed.

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.

when camper-to-counselor ratio is 1:1

deep down inside, it might be that i’m form-averse. the mounds and piles on my desk, the wee thin lines on those forms that lie there demanding to be filled with endless parades of itty-bitty digits (get one wrong and your claim is denied, your application rejected), they all make me break out in hives.

or maybe it’s that i could not stand the thought of one more season slapping PB onto J just before i stumbled off to bed, brown bag sacks tucked into a long night’s chill in the fridge.

or maybe it’s a long-held opposition to big yellow buses in summer. racing to corners in flip flops and bug spray seems somehow, well, unconstitutional. who needs 8 a.m. pickup when fireflies blink till late in the night?

but really, truly, i think the glimmer of an idea was born one february morning when the weight of the college-bound brother pressed particularly heavy on the heart of the one who’d be left home behind.

and i, mother to both, was left to do something, anything, to somehow untangle this heart-twisting knot.

they say necessity is the mother of invention, but really it’s the squeeze of a child’s heart that jumpstarts a mother to invent, to scramble, to snap-click her fingers and poof up a cloud of pure powdery magic.

what if, were the words out of my mouth, what if we have big-little brother camp, if big brother 1 is the counselor and little brother 2 is the camper? and that’s the whole of the camp?

the idea, unlike most that spew from my brain, was met with immediate, “hey, yeah”s.

within the course of an hour, a theme was struck (town and country, with outings to far-flung netherplaces–or swamps–one day, and downtown to the urban grid the next).

a list was made up, if only in their heads, all the things a boy and his brother might aim to do if given a summer, the keys to the car, and no one else to get in their way (certainly not the mother who would be far from the campgrounds, typing her summer away—at least tuesdays through thursdays, that is).

and so, now three weeks into it, i am here to report that a magical spell has been cast, and the joy of the camp lingers long after the camp bell clangs an end to the camp day.

right away i noticed at dinner how the giggles had grown exponentially. all of a sudden, after so many years and so many school days of traveling in parallel, non-intersecting orbits, they had their own sets of jokes and their own shared secrets of just how they had spent their whole days. (they will not divulge just why the south georgia peanuts baseball coach, who apparently lets loose on an ump in some youtube video, makes them fall off their chairs, from laughing so very hard.)

their itinerary, so far, has been thus: kayaking across a lagoon (with grammy, the intrepid octogenarian, in a boat all her own; not a one of them drowning, thank heaven), baseball catch at the park, hotdogsandfries, a bucket of balls at the golf range (high drama there when the head of the club went flying, a whole 150 yards, along with the ball), friedchicken, squash (the game, not the vegetable, believe it or not, as the big brother attempted to teach the ways of a gentleman sport), burritosandlime-flavoredchips, and that essential of any summer, sunbathing 101 (complete with the fine point of taking off socks to keep from unsightly tan line ringing the ankle).

just last night, as each boy dove into a mound of barbecued wings (the lunchtime hankering delayed till post-baseball dinnertime), i asked about camp, wondered what they had learned as we rolled past the mid-point of their six weeks together.

“how to eat really good food,” piped up the little one, an orange-splattered chicken wing dangling from his lips.

“not like healthy food,” he clarified. “like MAN food,” he said, the emphasis his.

then, because he’s long been known for his tepid tastes at the table, he turned to his brother-slash-counselor, and asked: “here can you taste it? tell me if i’ll like it. you know my taste.”

pretty much, that’s the heart and soul of it. two boys whiling their way through a summer. one knowing the other so well, he can tell what his tastebuds would say. the other, utterly trusting.

it boils down to that little message, re-spun and retold in hundreds and thousands of ways over the course of a june and july.

by august, attention will turn to what’s being stuffed into boxes, labeled and shipped to the holyoke mountains.

by september, what happens today will be just part of the frames that click-click through a little boy’s head as he lays down to sleep, trying to get used to the sound of a house without his big brother’s typing, trying to get used to the dark that’ll come from the room where the light’s always shone.

in a year or 10 or 20, my hunch and my prayer is that those two boys i love with all of my heart, will always look back on the summer of ’11, as the one where they discovered the ins and the outs of each other.

as one taught the other how to pull the oar through the water, and the other taught one how to tell if his wings were too spicy.

it’s a beautiful thing, in the end, when your lazy ol’ mama signs you up for a camp that you’ll carry through all the days of your life: the camp called brotherly love.

the blurry picture up above was snapped as the boys made it home from the wings run, the latest culinary adventure in their summer camp that seems to involve plenty of chowing.

do you have one particular summer you’ll never forget? a brother or sister who showed you the ropes? a camp you’ll hold in your heart forever and ever?

postcard from daycamp

dear anybody out there,

it’s me. at camp. oh, i know. i’m not supposed to be here. back in january, when winds were howling and snows blew in through the cracks, when the farthest thing from any right-thinking mind should have been what to do with the long hot summer, back then, when i signed up for this little adventure, i did not check some wee little box, saying i too wanted to come.

nope, this was supposed to be daycamp for l’il campers. not daycamp for mamas. but, in the world that i live in, things don’t always unfold quite like they’re ‘sposed to.

nope.

despite the fact that right up till bedtime the night before the first day of camp, all was swell in the i’m-going-to-camp dept., somehow, when curls hit the pillow, something had changed.

suddenly, there was much tossing and turning and calling down stairs. “i feel nervous,” was one of the hollers. “can you come here?” was another. followed by a solemn request to climb out of bed and reach for the box with the little glass hearts, the ones employed back on the night right before the first full day of school. the ones we squeezed back and forth, our own morse sort of code, to make like an invisible wire kept us tied through the long lonely hours of a first day apart.

and so, duly equipped, on day no. 1, my little camper set out with sunscreen and towel, pb & little glass heart.

apparently, the ol’ heart is due for a tune-up. a sad fact that became abundantly clear faster than i could spit out, “sweetheart, how was it?”as he slumped off the bus at the end of the very first day.

the big yellow camp bus had not even coughed up its exiting fumes, nor started to roll out of sight after unloading my little one, when his face, red and splotchy for starters, turned into a miserable mess of sweat, sobs and tears.

“i was homesick all day,” he told me, clutching my hand, nearly collapsing into my side, crying so hard we plopped right down on the sidewalk.

the rest of the night was one long, sniffly attempt to try to decipher the root of the very bad case of mal de chateau, to put a french spin on the global affliction.

if the word p-o-o-l was so much as whispered, the sniffles turned back to the sobs.

seems the pool, according to said camper, was seven feet deep at the shallowest end, and you could and you would sink to the bottom. seems, too, the campers were warned, and spared no gory details, of the imminent dangers of cracked heads and corners of pool.

besides all that drowning and bleeding to death, it was just plain nagging homesickness that ruined the day.

there was no going back for much of the evening. he was, it seemed, on strike for the summer. would rather wither up in his room than have to board that darn yellow bus, romp in the sun, slip on the edge of the pool and succumb to the deathly deep waters.

scrounging for some sort of out here, some sort of way to turn this around–save calling and begging for refund–i asked, squeakily, would it help if i came for the swimming? to which he shook his head yes, in between inhales in between sobs.

and, so, that is how i came to be the only fully-dressed soul on the side of the pool at the next day of camp, which happened to be only just yesterday.

which brings me directly to my reason for writing: life ain’t how you script it, now is it?

so much for breezy, easy summer. so much for scootching the boy onto the bus and spending my worry-free days here at the keyboard.

nope, not once in my wee little memory can i recall something around here unfolding the easy way.

all over america, i assume, there are campers whistling their way onto lumbering buses, signing up gleefully for rope climbing and watersliding. not minding the sun, not even mosquitoes. heck, someone somewhere might even take plain old grape jelly with the ubiquitous smear of peanutty butter.

but not at my house. and maybe not at yours either.

here, i am holding my breath. waiting for the camp nurse to call. wondering and wondering if maybe there’s someone who’s taken a shine to my homesick sweet camper.

i did all i could: stood there and cheered at the side of the pool, come yesterday morn. eyeballed the depth, informed him quite clearly it’s 3 and a half, not seven and change. told him, nope, i could not come every day.

but i could and i did tuck a love note back in his lunch bag this morning. slathered him up, with plenty of sunscreen. promised i’d wait right at the curb for the bus at the end of the very long day. then i waved adios, and started my prayers.

i find myself wondering why it is that for some of us the equation is never so simple, never straight forward. camp + camper does not equal instant attraction.

these things are labored for around here. we soothe and we coax. we dial up camp. we explain, and we ask if maybe we might be an exception, and sort of just lurk by the pool in the midst of our workday. just this once. please.

so much for carefree summer. heck, if this keeps up, i’ll be longing for school days.

and i know i’m not alone. i know a mama who had to walk a sixth grader into the school social worker each day, just to get the child out of the minivan. i know kids who won’t get near a bike. kids who refuse to go on a sleepover.

all i’m saying is there’s so much of growing up that everyone pretends is so easy. only it’s not. not at all for the kids whose hearts ache, and the ones whose tummies are tied up in knots.

i’m just saying summer’s not always a breeze. and some lemonade just can’t be made sweet enough. i’m saying for every 10 kids who take to the ballfield, there’s one–at least–left on the sidelines, shaking in fear.

i’m saying, God bless those children who find it so hard. and God bless the mamas and papas and all of the grownups who pay close attention, who don’t just slap the kid on the back, tell ‘em to buck up or else. turn out the light, let ‘em cry in the dark.

Lord have mercy, is all i ask. and try not to forget, a pool, even a mere three feet of water, can look to very small eyes like enough of a sea to swallow ’em whole.

and for just such a child, there’s no harm, i’d wager, in a grownup stopping the workday, and heading to daycamp. streetclothes and all.

don’t worry ’bout sunscreen. the sun doesn’t shine where a child is homesick.

did you find it harder to grow up than you thought it should be? than it seemed to be for everyone else? do you know little ones–or now big ones–who found every climb up the mountain to be steeper than anyone warned you? who lightened your climb? how have you lightened some homesick daycamper?