Gratitude. People usually say thankful. Like,
“I’m thankful it didn’t rain today, we’da missed our last game.”
Or, “I’m thankful they started using skim milk in my latte, last thing I need is the extra calories.”
Being thankful is good, of course. I’ve been thankful most of my life … ever since, I guess, the Methodist minister’s wife picked me up at the gas station where she found me. I’d run away from kindergarten after daddy dropped me off, I was so afraid of being late again.
But now, in my dotage, I’m pretty much always grateful.
Grateful I can hobble to the bathroom in the morning.
Grateful I can plant my foot against the shovel, and heave piles of dirt in the garden.
Grateful for clarity of mind, and the continuing passion for learning more, about everything.
Grateful for friends who take me, love me, and support me as I am.
Grateful for sunshine, and rain, and every season under God’s heaven — even this week in February, 2021, when we’re iced-and-snowed in. At this point, they all have a poignancy I’ve never experienced before.
We never know when our last breath will be drawn, our last hugs given to those we care about, our last expression of love, however large or small.
My most recent experience of love expression was the cleaning out of my garage. My son and grands helped, and we filled a dumpster with stuff that, had I not done it then, they’d have had to face it when all my “lasts” were done.
I think about that a lot. My home, which I’m grateful for, is an estate sale in waiting. I know that, and it helps me take things a little lighter.
We’re all in this big parler game called life, waiting for our number to be called. And while we play this game, let’s be grateful for the brilliant, heartbreaking, surprising, messy, beautiful life we’re living.
And may we never forget … there’s a last time for everything.
I don’t wax nostalgic often. But when I do, it seems my nostalgia — my longing — is for moments of connection. Moments confirming that the thread I bring to the tapestry of life is sufficiently interwoven with those of others. Moments that say “yes” to the presence of me. I know; self-centered is all I can call it, and yet … it seems to me that same sweet ache lives at the heart of us all.
We need reassurance that our time here matters, or mattered. In that sense, I think we’re all well advised to do the very best we can, always, with everyone. Then we must leave the rest to those who write about it afterward. Even so, if I could, I’d write of moments experienced or, at the very least, dreamed of:
- Standing at the kitchen sink in summer, barefoot, washing dishes and singing to the radio; breeze through the kitchen window makes the curtains flutter and plays with my hair. He slips up behind me, wraps around me and we become one, soapy hands in the water, swaying to the music.
- The children, rosy cheeked and sleepy eyed, pile into the bed where we snuggle under the covers and read The Velveteen Rabbit
- He wakes me in the wee hours whispering, “Hey, sleepyhead, come with me.” He takes my hand, urges me into my slippers and coat, then leads me outside where it’s snowing. We dance under the night sky with snowflakes falling all around us.
- The children come into us in the dark of morning squealing, “Mama, Daddy, it’s Christmas! Come see!” We roll out of bed, into our robes, and settle on the couch where we lean into each other over cups of hot coffee while watching the children open their gifts.
- He and I, walking hand in hand, talking, laughing, and scuffling through drifts of Autumn leaves.
- Peaking in on my sweet, sleeping children, touching them softly, blessing them, wondering if they know how much they are loved.
- He takes my bare face in his hands, kisses my forehead, looks into my eyes and whispers, “You. It’s you and me. It’s always been you and me. Forever. You and me.”
- A card arrives in the mail. Old fashioned roses painted on the front. Inside, a simple message: “We believe in you. We’re proud of you. We love you. Mother and Daddy.”
- A family dinner of all the siblings, children, and grandchildren. The main course served amongst us all is love, with laughter a plentiful condiment.
- That final moment when, having fought the good fight and for all the right reasons, I know without question that I’ve done my best. It no longer matters if anyone else knows. I know. And that’s enough.
People always ask me when I started to write. Especially songwriting.
I can think of points along my childhood and teen years, when I wrote to process feelings or moments; heartbreak. Confusion. Boys. But the truth is I’ve always, as long as I can remember, written it down.
I say that, and it strikes me quite odd that a tiny girl, not exposed to literary pursuits, would even think of writing.
I was a post war baby; my mother and daddy were young, beautiful, hard working. My daddy was a Navy man, and knew how to do just about everything. They were musical, and funny, but they were not the type to bury themselves in Tolstoy or Hemmingway. They had better things to do: roll up the rug in the dining room on Saturday afternoon and dance to Benny Goodman and Kay Starr records. Or sit on the front stoop at sunset, leaning into each other, beer in hand, and watch the kids ride their trikes in the driveway.
So how did I end up here, at this keyboard? Or way back there, at that Big Chief tablet with my Dixon Laddie #304?
I remember a moment when I was five. I was sitting on the swing in the back yard at 1563 North Marion. The sky was so blue, and I was so happy, I wanted to write a song about how I felt. I threw my head back, and instead of words coming out, I cried. My happy went heartbroken in that moment; I wept, because I knew I was too little to write a song that sounded like the ones on the radio.
And it’s interesting, isn’t it? How I remember that moment so clearly. How even as I think about it, I am “back there,” under that blue sky. In that back yard on that swing. My stomach even grabs for a second as the feelings I had then are here with me now.
So I guess you could say the writing thing has always been part of what I am. I remember in first grade, Sister Dianna was teaching us a song, and I was saying the words with her. She stopped, looked at me, and said,
“Mary Cecelia, do you know this song already?” No, I didn’t. I’d never heard it before. But somehow, I knew what would come next in the lyrics. Didn’t everybody? No, it turns out. They didn’t.
In third grade, Sister Mary Damien announced that the Highschool newspaper class was asking for poems from the grade school. They were going to publish one poem in the next edition of their paper. We were to turn our poems in the next day. My hear jumped, and my head started spinning with the tomes I would write.
That night at home, I took out my Big Chief tablet and my Laddie pencil, and I wrote. I wrote at least a half dozen one-stanza poems. I gave each stanza a name, and its own sheet of lined paper. I made the pages as neat as my third grade southpaw printing could get.
The next morning, I shuffled into the classroom with my classmates, laid my stack of poems on the corner of Sister’s desk, and took my seat. I watched her eagerly, hoping she would be proud of me.
Finally, Sister Damien walked over to her desk and picked up my pages. She leafed through them, then ripped them in half and threw them in the waste basket. As she did so she looked up at me briefly and stated,
“You were not to copy out of a book.”
My stomach lurched. My face turned hot. My eyes welled up. I was horrified, for several reasons:
First, it would never have crossed my mind to turn in someone else’s work; the fact that she thought I would do such a thing made me want to cry.
Second, even at seven years of age, I was in a panic: those were the only copies I had. I learned an important lesson that day: always make duplicates.
Third, though my classmates were laughing at me, I was more concerned with people thinking I had such a flawed moral compass. They clearly didn’t know me at all.
On another level, buried deep beneath my chaotic feelings, was a little voice that whispered,
“Hmmm. They must have been good. REALLY good. She thought you copied them out of a book.”
A backhanded compliment from a nun, saying my work was so good I could not have done it. I’ve lived a lifetime of twisted victories like that.
In fourth grade, we had music class two mornings a week. One morning the music teacher announced that there would be a music program, and that we would be in it. She then said to the class,
“We will need someone to sing the solo. Are there any solo singers in here?”
The entire class turned, without a sound, and pointed at me. All I’d ever done was sing with everyone else. I was completely unaware of my own voice. With all those fingers and eyes directed at me, I buried my face in my arms and cried.
Eventually I did sing the solo in the program that year. And I kept writing. There were times, big stretches in fact, when I was writing for my life. And music is the silver thread that’s always kept me tethered here.
In fact, writing and music have laced the pieces of my life together, helped me make sense of myself, this world, and the path I’m on. They still do.
I used to think maybe these things were pieces of generations past, pulling me back. But I’m starting to believe maybe they’re pieces of the future, pulling me forward.
Either way, I’ll take it. And I’ll write and sing the pieces of my life together, for as long as I’m here.
Have you ever considered the pristine beauty, the mystical significance of an empty bowl? Or even the hands that created the bowl itself? I hadn’t, until this past weekend.
An empty bowl is an important symbol in Buddhism. The bowl points to the monk’s way of life; they go from the monastery into the village each morning, bowl in hand, and ask for alms from the lay people. Whatever they receive, food or alms, is prayed over with thanksgiving, and counted as “enough;” “plenty” for that day.
As a prompt during a writing class recently, we were asked what we would need to fill our bowl.
I sat with my hand holding a pen, suspended over the page. My mind was blank. Just when I thought, “This is not working,” I heard my father’s voice.
My dad used to say, “Your mother could feed a family of eight on a potato and an onion.” And looking back, I realize that’s exactly what she did. She’d dice them, and boil them in a large pot of water; season them, and leave them to simmer on the stove. She’d put small pieces of Velveeta on the collection of bread heels, and run them under the broiler just long enough for the cheese product to melt across the surfaces of the bread, and start charring around the edges.
We loved potato soup night. It came after meatloaf night, and was followed by fish stick night, which was always on Friday. There was also tomato soup and grilled cheese night. There was bean and cornbread night, which was followed by chili night, because the leftover beans went into the chili.
When I recite the menu − this litany of how my mother fed six children on my dad’s hard earned but meager income − I am struck by a couple of things:
Regardless of where she kept her heart, regardless of how disconnected she seemed from the rest of us, she got up every day and did what needed doing to keep the children fed.
The process of creating a meal is a spiritual act. It is a prayer. Just saying grace over two such ordinary things as a potato and an onion − trusting that these will become the loaves and fishes on your children’s plates − that is a mother’s hope. An act of faith.
And I will say that doing it once makes it an event − marks its significance above the commonplace. But through my years of growing up, sitting as I did at that table every night, I can tell you this: the miracle of plenty was ever present there.
So when I consider what will fill my empty bowl, I humbly request one potato, one onion, and the power of my mother’s prayer.
I’m sitting at my kitchen table, studying the palm of my hand, and waiting for snow.
The house is warm, but my nose is cold. The wintry chill around the edges of the house drives me to the center so I’m here, at this table. And thinking of building a fire.
But these lines. They’ve been on my palms since I grew hands while in my mother’s belly. Had I known them to reveal things, had I known there was a map, I might have done life differently. I might have checked the highway that starts at my wrist and curves up to the center-point between my thumb and forefinger.
I would have read the road signs held in the two that cross from left and right.
Years ago I went to a palm reader in New Orleans. I was newly divorced and trying to figure out how to navigate in the world as nobody’s anything. The palm reader looked at my hands, traced the lines she saw, and nodded.
“Three children.” I shook my head.
“No. Only two. Two children.”
“Oh well,” she said, still looking at my hand, “You will have a third. There are three children here.” She looked up and smiled.
I paid, left as quickly as I could, got outside, leaned against the wall, folded into myself, and tried to breathe. Apparently my palms didn’t show the complete hysterectomy I’d had the week of my twenty seventh birthday. There would be no more children. But I could still feel her fingernail tracing that line. I looked at my palm. How could she see that? How did she see the one I lost? How is that written there? I choked back sobs, slouched against a building in the French Quarter. I’m teary now, just writing the words. So be it. The question I had, and still have, is this: is my story really written here? Right here? And how I could never read it, never even know it was here to be read?
I had wanted a house filled with children, but looking back – even through the grief of loss – I can see it all came together exactly as it should have.
Life is a fascinating tapestry of love and its heartbreak, growth and its pain, choices and their consequences … and the freedom to know that all things work for good in the hearts of those who believe.
So I sit here, check the weather forecast, watch The King’s Speech, and … realize that I’m idly running my finger across the line. The one that told her there were three. And I remember: whatever any of us might think we know about anything, we don’t know everything … we simply cannot. We’re inside it, looking out. There’s a certain relief in that, really. And how exciting it is to be aware that there’s always more to learn, reasons to wake each day, eager to wrap our arms around this miracle of life.