The Most Beautiful Place on Earth

I always think of my college roommate on Valentine’s Day.  Today, she must have thought of me, because she sent me a little message about heart-shaped pizza.  We shared a heart-shaped pizza at a restaurant on Greek Row as college freshman on what, to many, is a day of great romance and candlelight.

Underneath the candles, I have found the real light.

Lynne and I were seated at a cozy table with love-struck couples at every angle.  The pizza was perfect; the company, somehow, even better.  The stars aligned to deliver me the perfect roommate (with whom over the years, I indulged in many more pizzas) when I was an innocent and vulnerable just-turned-eighteen-year-old.   My perfect roommate had come to the university just days after suffering an unthinkable loss, one that made her among the most courageous people I have ever met.  I am pretty sure that in my selfish oblivion, I had no idea the depth of her grief, and how she would comfort me over the years as she carried around her heavy suitcase, one that nobody could actually see.  Those were such formative years for me; great blessings, indeed.

I want to fly, away from the part that hurts, but still into what I am now, never changing or passing with time.

Dan and I moved our young family back to DeKalb in 2000.

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From my journal, dated 1-22-01: “As I was walking past the river on an afternoon…, I again realized that DeKalb is the most  beautiful place on earth.  The Kish(waukee River), yet to be frozen, was running northerly, broken up in some spots by very white balls of smooth, snowy ice. All was still, and the university very, very quiet.  Never, ever will there…be any regret for choosing this place.  This is our home.  The smallest reasons are the strongest confirmations.”

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I have always loved cookies.  Lynne and I shared our passion for antiques: we would visit the dusty back rooms of whatever doors were open, it seemed, in search of Fiesta ware and vintage cookie jars.

I had ordered a plate of decorated cookies from the student catering building.  On Valentine’s Day, 2008, I ventured onto campus for the first time in perhaps over a year.  With my three-month-old foster baby in tow, I collected the sparkly heart-shaped gems and stopped at Record Revolution to share some with an old friend.  The baby was safely in his seat (I think he was actually sleeping, which did not happen often in those early days) as I crossed the alley at the back of the parking lot which edges the campus.  I was taken aback by a student running, cell phone in hand, from the direction of the theater building and Cole Hall.  As a wild animal runs to escape its hunter, so perhaps a dozen frantic-looking students followed suit of the first. Curious, I thought, as I pulled through the alley and drove down the street to get a coffee before picking up the elementary school set.   Was this some sort of scavenger race?  Maybe an acting class?  It was, after all, near the Stevens Building.

As I left the drive-through, latte in hand, my ears were flooded with sirens.  First one police car, then many.  Rescue vehicles and frenzy filled my usually peaceful university.  Reports were coming across the radio by now.  I just needed to pick up my kids.

It wasn’t until I was safely home that I realized how close I had been to the horrific, the absolutely unthinkable.  Innocent people were breathing their last breaths as I passed by, as I was enjoying what may have been the most decadent butter cookie imaginable.

We are these people.

Clear the thoughts…rub your eyes…it’s almost time to fly, fly.

Today, I am eternally grateful for my rich and deep blessings: my dear husband, my beloved children; my extended family; my deep and sustained friendships; my spirituality; my precious kitty, Juliet; my cookie jars; and, of course, pizza, heart-shaped or not.

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Sparkles and Fear

She didn’t say a word, and neither did I.

It may have seemed like just a piece of paper, but to me it represented much more. For nearly eighteen years, I had held on to it and kept it safe. And just as I handed it to her, she let it slip away.

Wendell was our first rooster at the farm. He was aggressive and would flap up at us randomly. We loved him, but we were all a bit fearful of him, because he sometimes hurt us. Wendell died suddenly last September; he had not been with us even two years. A few unsettling weeks passed for our vulnerable hens before we got Ben, our new rooster, from a farm in Wisconsin. He fit right in with the flock. He has been as gentle as Wendell was ornery. Not once has he approached any humans with aggressive tendencies. I can fill the feeder with Ben standing right beside me, patiently awaiting the fresh crumble. Still, though, whenever I make my way to the chicken coop, as the flock follows me from behind, my guard is up. I turn around every few steps to make sure Ben is not getting too close or coming at me. I guess I am so programmed from my angry rooster, that I can’t quite let go of the thought.

I think this is a tiny window into the minds of our kids who are hyper vigilant every moment as a function of a traumatic past. The fear, the worry never quite goes away.

Ben is the sweetest, kindest rooster. He stands near the door of the chicken house, eyeing the pie tin filled with warm oatmeal and buckwheat groats, likely wishing that the hens will leave just a bite for him, just this once. He dares not even try to join the others. His first priority is to make sure he guards his flock. But it’s not about Ben. It’s about what we remember, about what happened before. It’s about the fear that is still so raw, that becomes part of who we are.

I know she can do it. She just wants to forget what she can’t remember, but she must remember that she will never forget. She is strong enough, but her eyes must open so she can see.

I love the new fallen snow. It sparkles like glitter across the acres. As I trod over the property to open the coop in the nearly knee deep blanket, the ornamental grasses that surround a nostalgic metal tractor…garden art, in summer…bend slightly under the weight of winter’s latest gift. The colors are bold and definitive, showcasing nature’s artwork, marking the seasons in a new, unexpected way.

My son sent a miniature orchid for my first Mother’s Day at the farm. It was delicate and profuse in its blooms of lilac and pink, striking beauty for my kitchen windowsill. As spring turned to summer, the last blooms had gone. I read about orchids. I fed my plant with fish emulsion. I watered it regularly and saved its place in the window. I gave it a bigger pot. All the while, I wondered if it would ever bloom again. Nearly two years later, almost overnight and to my utter surprise, seven buds have appeared on a single stalk that looked, until days ago, just like the shoots that have come and gone without flowering.

I’m different than I was a couple decades, even a decade ago. There’s fear in having experienced more, in knowing more and less at the same time, but there’s also complacency in knowing that the hope will find me, that there will be something, no matter how small, to let me know that I am still on the trail…even when I have to turn around every so often to make sure the rooster hasn’t turned on me.

I can hear my little boy laughing from the other room. For him, it has taken much more than two years. It has taken twenty-eight medications and most of his young life to find a few moments of stillness, sparkling as they are, in this space of time. I don’t know where this will take him, or what this even means. I know, though, that it’s a better place than anywhere he has been in a very long time. It doesn’t mean we don’t look back, wondering if a torrent is coming from behind. I think we always will.

We had to get a new paper, a new declaration, to replace the one that had slipped away. There’s a painful lot, though, that we can’t replace.

When the snow begins to melt into a messy slush, I look, but I can no longer find the sparkles . That doesn’t mean, though, that they were never there.

Cinnamon Coffee

Her baby wore a cotton sun hat, and I saw her at the old park that nearly met the expressway. We were neighbors, people that fell into the same space of time which would eventually lead us to forge a rich, strong friendship.

Now, I miss her.

We hadn’t become close friends until she moved away; I find this as no sort of rare occurrence, and something that happens not just with people, but with anything that comes to be held dear.

Sometimes there is a palpable break, an event, a transition, a falling out, a loss. There may be suffering, sadness, despair. Often, though, time steals away the memory until once again, unexpectedly, it emerges.

That’s what happened with my friend. That’s definitely what happened with the cinnamon coffee.

When Dan and I first set up house together in our Oak Park apartment, our morning routine always included adding a teaspoon (measured by the worn tin scoop that was connected by a ring to its graduated counterparts) of discount grocery store cinnamon to the Mr. Coffee with clear Leona’s influence.

I must have been in college when we first went to Leona’s, the fairy vision of a restaurant in the new wave hub of Chicago, where the best part of the meal, besides, of course, the cinnamon coffee, was the tiny complimentary plate of Italian cookies, some decorated with sparkly frosting in pastel pink and green, some with chopped pistachios atop, and others that had been dunked sideways in milk chocolate, the kind that melts into your hand before it reaches your mouth.

That cinnamon coffee seemed a rare, decadent treat, until we figured out how to brew it on our own, every day.

Every day, that is, until one day we just didn’t. We began brewing black coffee in the pot each morning, and there was my favorite coffee shop, where I could push the stroller just a few blocks to my afternoon latte. These too, were treasured rituals which were not intended to replace the beloved cinnamon coffee, but which played to a new rhythm for our days.

At Christmastime the year we were neighbors, she brought me a bag of coffee, the fancy, robust whole bean kind that would fill my kitchen with thoughts of her at each grind.

It was not long before she moved to the city, the same city where I had first been served cinnamon coffee.

We were connected by an affinity for cloth diapers, handmade soap, and vintage pink, among many other things, and our phone calls to one another became more frequent. I, too, moved away with my family, far away from the city and my friend. I once painted my little boys’ entire bedroom during a phone conversation with her.

On occasion, we would meet late at a town which fell between our two homes. We could catch up over coffee, and I would drive home, full of shortbread and the intangible gifts that my friend had given.

I once found some Italian cookies reminiscent of the days of our visits to Leona’s at the local grocery store. I bought some, and of course, I ate them, but they were just not the same.

She would tell me about her Catholic homeschooling adventures and trips to the ballet with her precious daughters, all three of whom were blessed with the angelic face of their mother, my friend. She listened intently as I described challenging behaviors that sometimes resulted in holes in walls, and summer weekends at the baseball field.

More time passed between the phone conversations, and it had been years since we had met for late night coffee. I’m sure it wasn’t intentional from either side; it was just that our lives had taken very different turns, and our spaces in time were filled with much else.

I’m not sure what made me think of her the other day; it could have been a million different things, one of so many that had woven so tight a friendship. I thought, but I could not remember her phone number, one that I had dialed sometimes several times in a day, for years running.

The boys were all home for Christmas this year. Two who had not seen Ethan in a year’s time remarked, on separate occasions, how different he seemed, and how much more peaceful the days felt. I’m not sure if his twenty-eighth medication is having a positive effect, or if there has been an undefinable shift in his lifelong struggle, but one can not deny that there has been change. We wished and hoped with all that our souls could hold, but we hadn’t seen it coming.

Though I take the cinnamon from the cabinet nearly every morning when someone inevitably requests cinnamon toast, this time, I thought of our cinnamon coffee from decades past. I thought of Leona’s, and I made cinnamon coffee. I wonder what took me so long.

I wonder if my friend would still meet me late one night. We could catch up, and we could try to remember what we never thought we would forget. If we look back and see how different we are now, that must make the beginning, the early days, worth so much more.

I guess if we just kept drinking the cinnamon coffee, day after day, we would not find the joy in it’s rediscovery.

And I do think I remember her phone number.

Still

“You could come to California.”

For a second, my feet sunk into the hot sand on Venice Beach and the rhythm of the waves threatened to pull me under, into the forbidden reverie.

“If only…”

It seemed as if I had just been there, but months had already passed since our idyllic late summer getaway.

Through my tears and the setting sun, the drive west from the airport was challenging. The sky distracted me: sharp blue penetrated pink, white, and orange to further obscure the formations which seemed angry yet somehow serene at the same time.

It had been a good, quiet holiday, but the plane took him back a day earlier than we had expected. We didn’t know he was going to leave just then. Maybe it was best that way, to be unaware. After all, I don’t want them to go.

If the sun is shining, there is a good chance that the chickens will come out of the coop, a least for long enough to discover that winter’s icy blanket is an unwelcome barrier to the day’s plans for foraging.

Five days in Maine was a perfect honeymoon.

It seemed as if I had just been there, leaving the hotel so early to board the plane on that May morning nearly twenty-eight years ago, hand in hand with my love, to uncover the first stones to our future.

It was cold enough for a jacket, and the breeze was mighty. When we stood upon the rocks at the edge of the water and looked far away toward the skyline, a lighthouse rose stoic and strong through the misty gray mid-morning.

Perhaps I should have been more aware. Maybe I should have paid better attention. Still I am not there, even through the trials and promises. We didn’t know it was going to be so hard.

I didn’t know the strength of the wind until I turned around and it had ceased to blow.

It has been unimaginably cold this winter. My thirteen chickens perch together in their collective down coat, closed in the coop well before each sunset. It’s a rare day that I gather two eggs. They are waiting, in the stillness of their own company, for the days to turn.

I am waiting, too. I am waiting for the moments to become hours and then days. I am waiting for the Lenten rose to bloom, for the herald of spring, for the chance to keep my promises.

And if you are here to keep me company, to give me hope, to carry me through the darkest hours, I will hear you, and I will know.

I didn’t know how much I had missed you until you came back.

We don’t know the depths of our love until it is very, very quiet.

In the space of time where there is nothing…no movement, no voice, no light…the thoughts will carry meaning to me, and I will try to understand.

There will be another morning, perhaps unbearably cold, where I will bring water to the chickens, where I will make sure my little son has an extra pair of mittens in his school bag, where I will try to find what has gone.

It’s not my footprint in the California sand, but the track of an adventurous chicken in the aftermath of yet another Northern Illinois snowfall. And in the stillness of today, much is revealed, and much is good.

In the Shadows

It was time to take the tree down. More needles had fallen to the ground than remained on the branches.

The fires were burning, and the timing was curious. I called my friend: my friend that had escaped through her bedroom window to accompany me to toilet-paper a boy’s house very early on a summer morning in 1982; my friend that sat with me on my carpeted bedroom floor on one of our first college breaks as we collectively realized that U2’s song “40” was inspired by the biblical psalm; my friend who had a chaise lounge and little violets on the wallpaper in her bedroom where I had so often slept in the canopy bed alongside her; my friend that I had not seen in nearly thirty years. I called her, and she graciously allowed my son to park his car in her driveway as the fires threatened to move in to the area where he was living. His car, along with his treasured possessions which he had packed away in his trunk and my deepest high school secrets still untold, was safe with my friend while he traveled across the country for the Christmas holidays. I was hesitant to make the call to my long-ago friend in California, but I knew I needed to, on the chance that it might work out.

That might be how the placement workers feel: I will call, just at the chance that this might be the family to become the next part of the child’s journey.

I think we have to take the chance, to try, because it just could lead to something, to the tiniest possibility or to the biggest wonder.

This early winter, I have also reconnected with two other high school classmates for different reasons. It had been many, many years since I had seen any of them. Somehow, though, the time seems to fall away when the hand is extended, and we remember the spots in our souls that were once…and still are…connected.

She wanted to let me know about a doctor that uses an alternative therapy to help patients, and she wondered if this doctor might be able to help our son. She drove to the farm to visit me earlier this month. We had shared a lunch table during our high school years, and now this girl that I had deeply admired was sitting alongside me at my kitchen table. I saw her spark, that same spark that had so often lit up her teenage face, even if she did not realize that it was there. There is something so comforting about those early friendships, where someone knew you almost before you were really even you, and where you don’t have to tell your story, because they already know. But then, aren’t we still who we have always been?

Last week, a third high school classmate brought me a ten-year-old doggie with a heart-shaped spot on his head. I didn’t plan to get another dog, ever. My friend shared his photo and his story, though, and I knew that this dog was meant to be at the farm for the sunset of his life. I brought my two little sons to meet the dog. My friend held him up to the window at the coffee shop. Her fairy blue eyes met mine, and though I had told her that I really wasn’t a dog person but that there was something about this one, she entrusted this tiny dog to my care, because she knew it was supposed to be.

I have never been good with rosemary, though I have loved it above all herbs since I had first planted it in the soil at our first house on Clinton Avenue. The woody stems grow strong through the summer; the pungent, unmistakable aroma wafts up to fill my senses with wonder as I tend to the plantings near the back door. Early each fall, well before the predicted frost date, I am careful to dig up my rosemary, looking nearly invincible as a gardener’s prize to behold, and move it to my white enamelware pot. I am convinced that this will be the year that I am able to successfully winter-over this worthy herb. Mine did not make it to Thanksgiving this year. I bought another one, though, at the grocery store. It had been shaped topiary-style into a tree form. Two weeks later, it was as sparse and dry as my Christmas tree is today.

This Christmas has been relatively peaceful, as much as can be with nine children and twenty-two animals at home.

There’s a lot of brightness even in the shadows. Sometimes, we just have to look a little bit.

As my helper pulled ornaments from the tree, I was struck by the resilience of the special few that have remained since my childhood. They were shining stars along with the golden tinsel of my early years. The shrub-haired pixie was with me through my first dance recital, the flocked Santa knew that I had eaten way too many chocolate kisses the year that I decorated the tree with my friend, and the bright green Humpty Dumpty was there to meet me when I came home from college at Christmas. They will be tucked away for now, but they will be waiting when the seasons circle back once again.

I had to visit the garden store to pick up a few last-minute Christmas gifts. A leggy rosemary plant stood at the counter where I checked out. I took it home with me without much hope that I could keep it alive. A couple weeks passed. As I watered the scented geraniums that were faring well in the kitchen window, the light purple blooms caught me by surprise. My rosemary plant had flowered!

Long ago, I learned that rosemary stands for remembrance. I often wonder how I could ever forget. The small things that are so much a part of us never really leave; how could they?

When this moment’s journey does not seem to make sense, the shadows just might be holding the real meaning. A child’s time with us is brief, we have lost touch with a friend, and we worry if we have done the right thing.

The fires are quieter now. For today, the what-ifs are no longer cause for worry. I have a little old doggie curled on my lap, and I am reminded of the treasures that my years have returned to me.

Lost

One day, she was just gone. Eva was the most striking of all the laying hens, with her nearly iridescent feathers, graceful presence, and animated personality. She was a Lavender Orpington, one of two baby chicks for which I had paid upwards of seventeen dollars each, whereas my original flock of Barred Rocks and Easter Eggers had cost a mere two to three dollars per pullet. All, though, are worth millions to me.

Eva knew when the leftover cinnamon toast crusts were headed her way, and she would greet me at the van upon my return from a downtown grocery run. From time to time, she would let me pick her up, and her feathers were soft as butter.

But now she’s gone.

Though I had anticipated this day for months, when the half-size orange bus pulled in to the gravel driveway at our farm, I felt an unexpected wave of regret. He would be so lost, so confused. How would he know that he would be well tended and returned to this very place after a three-hour span of time that included free play, snack, and circle? We had talked about what was going to happen, but did he really understand?

He waved to me and mounted the three steps, each nearly taller than he, with hesitancy and bravery at the same time. The door closed, and I lost myself raking the late fallen leaves for those first moments in this new season in my life.

It wasn’t like when we had lost our other chickens, when we were certain that they had died, when we held their lifeless bodies, and when we knew that their little chicken souls had gone off to a nest in the high heavens.

It wasn’t like when I finished school, only to step off into the next logical place on my way to adulthood. There is no longer a definition for the hours before me. If the darkness, the uncertainty, and even the regret, try to find the way in, I must be quick to face the lights and walk onward to the new direction, wherever that may be.

I like to imagine that Eva must have wandered off to a neighboring farm where she found a new flock, one that serves an abundance of cracked corn and whole pieces of cinnamon toast, not just leftover crusts. The hens there may even wear knitted chicken sweaters, and they probably have an automatic door on the coop so they are safe and secure before each sunset. Deep inside, though, I know where she really has gone.

“When am I going home?”

I had been asked that question so many times, but it always caught me off guard. My answer, though, was always the same.

“I don’t know.”

It’s not up to me. It never is. Nothing is.

Some days go by. She doesn’t come back. The small bus pulls up at the same time each afternoon to get my little boy. We get used to the court continuances and the string of days where we just don’t know. It becomes our new rhythm, and we carry on.

The dawn heralds a new start each day, and though a different rooster now crows with the sunlight, the morning’s promise cannot be taken. There is purpose even when time is elusive, even when we are lost and alone.

And maybe now there will be time to learn to knit one of those little chicken sweaters, just in case she finds her way home.

Earthbound


He’s finally sleeping.

I understand why they gave me  one of those spoon/fork combos, but it was nearly impossible to cut the “grilled chicken” that occupied the styrofoam plate alongside an extraordinary pile of bright green broccoli.  They cannot offer knives to mental health patients.  It was a parent tray, though.  I wouldn’t have used a knife to cut anything but the chicken, but still I was denied.  Sometimes big things happen that make the little things hard, like the simple act of eating my dinner.

This is the third day.  My mind swirled with thoughts, as something had to occupy the space.   There was still much garden work to be done.  I am missing my annual “day off” with my longtime friend, and my son is missing his childhood.

Dan and I switched places for a few hours.  I hadn’t seen my seven-year-old in nearly twenty-four hours.  He opened the door to the van and slipped into my arms, exclaiming, “Mama!  I missed you!”.  I missed him, too, and I miss everything.

We have been in this very room before, but never for this long.  Hours pass, and the door to Room 6 has not been opened.  The rhythm varies with the shift change; an occasional nurse takes more interest to see if there is anything that we need.  My little son requests a box of Kleenex, but really we are desperate for so much more…so much more than anyone can provide.

Maybe there is a mental health crisis of some sort; clearly, funds for appropriate care must be lacking.  But it is hard to find sense in this great pause: Day Three, still “no bed available”.

Again, he is awake.  I have been reading a book about spiritual healing that was shared by a good friend.  I am hoping that might be the ticket, as this clearly is not.  We’re stuck.  We can’t get out.  We are bound, because there is nowhere to go.

I see him, playing games on a phone to pass one little mark of time in this massive abyss.  He adjusts his position in the easy-clean recliner and sometimes laughs audibly.  His wide grin makes me smile, too, for this moment.  And then I remember.

“I hate being stuck in this little tiny room.”

I can hear his breathing.  It sounds thick and a bit labored, as if he may have caught some sort of germ from this extended stay at the ER.  He goes back to playing his game.  He needs to be out in the fresh air, throwing his football to the high heavens.

He has been mostly quiet here since he arrived by ambulance from school, where the inner turbulence had spilled out to the point that he was a risk to others, except for the times when his blood was drawn and when he was told that he would have another hospital stay.

My head hurts.

It’s so hard to put the pieces together.  If we leave him alone within our company, asking nothing of him while nobody sets him off, he is happy.   When the teacher accidentally mixes up his name with that of another student, when he has trouble pulling up his socks, or when he is blamed for throwing the football onto the school’s roof (which he did), his mind and body rebel to the point that nothing in his path is sacred.   There is screaming, fear, destruction, suffering, and, like this time, there are sirens.

I think they are still going off in my head.

He is calm now, as the need for intense care is reassessed.  We know though, that the trials will begin again at the first perceived conflict.   Again, we wait.  

This time, the spoon/fork is for vegetable soup.

The prospect of staying a third or fourth night here seemed less appealing than the inevitable stampede of verbal and physical angst.   I think we would be okay to take him home. We have lived this way for so long.  

The time was still as the stale air that surrounded us.  The door opened abruptly, and the caseworker sent forth the news in the tidy proclamation that I had been dreading, that I had been waiting to hear.

He was calm and cooperative.  His eyes took him elsewhere, almost to another realm, a safe distance from the reality in front of him, as he climbed onto the gurney.  It was time to go, and he knew it.  

It was hard to see through the fog as I drove home, alone.  I thought of him, also alone, on his way to another attempt at calming the forces so far beyond his control.   

I am home, where I will be able to use a regular knife to cut my food.  I am home, where holes have been kicked in the drywall in moments of frustration and where his absence gapes through the halls.   

The voice deep inside tells me that we are close, that things will get better, and that we will soon find what has been elusive.  On this day, though, we are held tightly within the cruel grasp of what is beyond our control.  We cry, we pray, and we wait, all the while standing, bound to this earth, hoping to see what’s next.

The sun peeked from the clouds for a moment in time on this Sunday, well after the church bells had stopped ringing.  I had a little chance in the garden after all, before the end of a weekend which had offered the unexpected in so many ways.   There may have been just enough time to rake away the remains of the garden before night fell.  

I pulled out a few spent corn stalks and some overzealous creeping charlie.  As I was raking up the last fallen green tomatoes, I noticed the top of an onion that somehow escaped the season’s harvest.  As I freed this prize-of-the-patch from its place in the soil, I could feel the roots release their hold, a hold that had nearly kept this onion from the dinner table.  It was robust and beautiful, all the more so for having had a bit more time to grow.  

There’s still hope; there’s still something.  When the skies open up and the day comes, I know he is going to be free.  And I can’t wait to tell him about that one last onion.