on slow learning

If you have ever owned
a tortoise, you already know
how terribly difficult
paper training can be
for some pets.

Even if you get so far
as to instill in your tortoise
the value of achieving the paper,
there remains one obstacle--
your tortoise's intrinsic sloth.

Even a well-intentioned tortoise
may find himself, in his journeys,
to be painfully far from the mark.

Failing, your tortoise may shy away
for weeks within his shell, utterly
ashamed, or looking up with tiny,
wet eyes might offer an honest shrug.
Forgive him.

Reprinted from Compass of Affection: Poems New & Selected by permission of the author, Scott Cairns, and Paraclete Press. To find out more about this beautiful collection visit this page.


manic manicure

Today I took Anna, Maya and Natalie with me to get my nails done. We waited until Natalie fell asleep in her infant seat and then we seized the moment. I found a parking spot a mere eight blocks from the salon and lugged the sleeping Natalie in her car seat as I limped along, thanks to an unfortunate episode involving my big toe and the stone step into our kitchen.

I was suffering between the toe and the cumbersome infant seat, but of course the five-year-olds had the greater angst. "This is such a long way," Anna said. "I can barely make it." A few times Anna halted conveniently in the middle of intersections to ruminate.

But we finally made it, and the neon lights of the salon were an oasis in the desert. Soon my feet would be lovely and soft again! To my great relief, Natalie slept peacefully during all procedures while Anna and Maya acted extraordinarily grown-up as their fingernails were painted in matching gold hues. Just before I left, Natalie woke, and I looked down and realized that my big toe had been smudged.

I asked Anna to hold Natalie for a few moments while I had the toe fixed. Natalie started to wriggle out of Anna's arms, and the woman who had painted my nails came over to help, because I didn't yet have the use of my fingers.

She held Natalie in her arms and said, "Is it a boy or a girl?"

"A girl," I said.

"She doesn't look like a girl," the woman said.

"Well she is in kind of a boyish outfit," I conceded.

The pacifier then slipped from Natalie's mouth to the floor. I asked Anna to drop it in the infant seat, because I still couldn't pick it up with my wet nails. But the woman said, "No! It must be washed." I said, "Oh yeah, Anna, Maya, will you wash this for me?" The girls were thrilled with the task and headed to the sink at the back of the salon.

And then the woman said, "You really should trim your baby's nails. They shouldn't be long like this. She could scratch herself."

I nodded. What an astute observation and handy bit of advice!

Then, with Natalie still in her arms she bounced her and sang this clever ditty (to be sung to the tune of "Nah-nah-a-boo-boo, stick-your-head-in-dog-do"), "I don't have any babies, but I know how to take care of babies."

But she stopped cold when she noticed my next crime against humanity. "Do you have a dog? She really has an awful lot of hair on her. She shouldn't be . . ."

I stood up. "This is an unpleasant experience for me. I don't think I'll ever be able to visit your salon again. You don't have any babies yet, but when you have them you can take care of them however you please, in the meantime, I'm not interested in your advice."

I swung Natalie onto my hip and told the girls it was time to go.

"Do you carry your baby like that?" the woman asked.

I jerked my head back at her, fire in my eyes. The ladies who were drying their nails looked up at us. Lucky for them, this was grander drama than they could have anticipated. Why go to the theater when you can get a manicure?

"Stop." I said, firmly and loudly. I looked the woman in the eye and pointed at her."I don't want to hear one more word from you." (Apparently I spend way too much time around five-year-olds and not quite enough in the company of adults).

"I was just asking," she said.



I was raised in a wilder time. We didn't bother with car seats or even seat belts much of the time. I remember riding in the back of a neighbor's pick up truck--she did, of course, tell us to duck when we passed the police station. I also "smoked" candy cigarettes, built ramshackle tree houses sans nails, walked to the store by myself by the time I was Anna's age, jumped from the second floor to the sofa and rode my sled off the cabin roof ("Yee-ha" for you Dukes of Hazard fans out there).

My generation is more safety conscious--perhaps out of necessity. We're all about forcing our infants to sleep on their backs in their blanketless/pillowless cribs, car seats, organic eating, bike helmets and knee pads. And I don't even want to get into my paranoid obsession with "the gap" and the lectures I give Anna about it every time we take the train. We live in a dangerous world and our kids know it (at least mine do). Anna even has a whistle to blow should some creepy guy slip in through the back gate.

With all our safety procedures in place, something slipped through the cracks last year when my neighbor offered Anna a sparkler. I was honestly horrified that they let their kids play with these "mini finger incinerators" and I was equally floored that the father actually does "tricks" with fire. That's just what I want Anna to see--a grown-up playing with fire!

I allowed Anna a sparkler last year with much trepidation and many barked commands as she tried to maneuver it. Did I mention that when I was a teen I was hit by a firework and had to "stop, drop and roll?" Anyway, during Anna's first experience with the sparkler I was totally hands-on and sweating. I just read my friend Romani's post about sparklers and I was amazed to read that her parents let her and her sisters RUN with the blasted things!

And yet, I understand a little better this year. Sparklers are beautiful, they're fascinating, and they give our kids a chance to try something a little dangerous on their own. For me, at least, taking risks was an essential part of growing up. I needed to be trusted with a little so that I could gain confidence in my ability to take on more with each passing day.

So here's Anna, holding her sparkler far from her face and body just as I told her to, looking at me with her wide eyes, and beginning to light her own path through this dangerous world.

first words

Natalie seems to be a lady of many words, although for the most part we have been unable to make sense of them. But the other day she woke John by rolling over and grabbing his beard and saying "hidada." You may call this mere coincidence but I believe that her first word was actually no word at all but WORDS. (Read it and weep Esme!) And then, as if to confirm the matter, today during church she looked up through the royal doors and said, "hidada."


ordinary gifts

Two weeks ago the husband of my friend Cindy, Andy Wierzba, died of a heart attack. Andy is my third married friend to die young and suddenly, and I haven't had words to write about this for two weeks. I've been tiptoeing around the computer, wanting to say something but at a loss for words.

Cindy and I began seminary together in 1999, and she married Andy in 2001. Seminary was difficult for Cindy--she was a business woman who didn't have a lot of patience with the esoteric elements of theology. She would startle us all during a lecture in dogmatics or Church history when she would raise he hand and say something like, "But what does this have to do with Jesus, anyway?"

As a business woman, she was able to hire out all her writing. She used to tell me that in the business world, "writers are a dime a dozen."(Thanks Cindy!) Anyway, since she didn't have to write in her professional life it was a foreign experience for her to sit down at the computer and build an essay brick by brick, and many of her papers went unfinished for many years.

The last time I spoke to Cindy she told me that Andy was pushing her to get her degree and that when she lost courage he would gently nudge her until finally, one month ago, Cindy graduated. But when she finally got the diploma she fought so hard for, she didn't really want it. She knew it belonged to Andy as much as it belonged to her, so she tucked it into his casket.

When Cindy and Andy were newly married they attended our parish. They were a lovely couple--different but complementary. Cindy was bold and impulsive, articulate and unpredictable. Andy was gentle, consistent, self-educated and steady. He was also handsome and poised. Cindy told me that at their parish in Rye, New York there was a woman who always used to stare at him during the services, and Cindy took pleasure in the fact that she had the best looking guy at the church. But after Andy died the woman came to her with tears and said, "Now I'm going to have to pray during church!"

On Monday Amber called to tell me about the New York funeral. She said she had been crying all day, but it was a good kind of cry. And then she said something beautiful. She said, "We go to funerals not just to mourn the dead but to recommit ourselves to the project of living."

So I continued that project of living for a few days, all that living infused with the knowledge that Andy was gone and no amount of thinking would untangle this. A week ago Thursday I woke to attend the Chicago funeral. As I stumbled out of bed I thought, "I am just going to cry and cry today."

At the Greek funeral, it was sobering to see Andy, laid out in the casket, looking so unlike himself, as he was fit and athletic in this life. And it was sweet to see Cindy, who was her gracious loving self, despite her grief.

There was one moment that expressed so much of who Cindy and Andy are to the world and what they were to each other. At the burial, after the prayers had been said but everyone was still around, Cindy started pulling roses and daisies from the bouquet atop the casket, calling people by name to receive one last gift from Andy.

This photo is from that moment. I was a little nervous snapping photos at a cemetery, so I unfortunately cut off Julia and Esme's heads. But still, the moment is there, Cindy handing Esme a beautiful red flower, and Esme studying it with that academic look of hers. The arm reaching into the bouquet is Andy's mom.

After Cindy's gesture, everyone seemed a little confused because we didn't actually lower the casket into the ground. On the phone today, Cindy told me that she was troubled by this and a few days after the funeral she inquired about it. She was told that they no longer do that because it is "too upsetting."

She said, "But how will I know that you actually buried Andy right here?" She asked if they might dig up the casket for her so she could double check, but was told that she'd already spent $2,500 for the casket to be buried and she was forbidden to disturb the grave.

She eyed the sod covering Andy's freshly-dug grave and was troubled at the careless covering and yellowing grass. "Andy was visual and he liked everything neat," she said. So she got down on her knees and pulled the sod off the grave. She grabbed some fresh, healthy sod and rolled it carefully over the dirt.

"I felt like I was combing his hair," She said.

After the grave was settled to her satisfaction, she took a moment to lay down on that fresh grass, to rest with her husband in that quiet, wordless place.

P.S. To learn more about Andy and Cindy visit Julia's blog-- http://flakedoves.blogspot.com/2007/06/andy-through-cindy-shaped-glasses.html.

new do, no do

So I got a new haircut, and it is exactly what I wanted, a no-do-do. What I mean by that is that this haircut looks exactly the same when I roll out of bed in the morning as it does after I've showered. I don't dry, curl or agonize any more. No product, no hassle. In fact, I'm going to carry my curling iron right out to the alley as soon as I sign off (yeah)!

I'm a little embarrassed to post this, but I need to hear from my dear girlfriends, because my hubby has been less-than-enthusiastic about the new do. In fact, when I came through the door with it, he simply said, "Oh."

At that point I was feeling a little delicate, as if I'd made some kind of cosmic error by chopping my hair. On the long walk to the train, I kept peeking in every store window on Michigan Ave hoping to catch my reflection. Maya and Anna finally said, "What are you doing?"

When I got home I called my mom for advice. She said, "Just be with it and see what you think in a few days." I must say that it is delightful to have one less to do on on my list each day.

P.S. I took the photo myself. Amber is training me into the fine art of self-portraiture.


the year of the cicada

So it is the year of the cicada, which was initially a pretty creepy concept to me. Apparently the cicadas go in 17 year cycles, and when they come, they bring all their friends and relatives and they party in every tree in the Chicago suburbs. They're so noisy that you can barely think when you get near one of their hang outs.

Recently, at a birthday party for one of Anna's five year old buddies, Anna managed to catch and cuddle two cicadas. The other girls were pretty frightened of the orange-headed insects, but Anna loved them with a strange passion. So much so that in the car she suggested we open a window because then perhaps more cicadas would join us. What delightful company a gigantic, screaming, orange-headed insect would make on our hour long trip home!

Anyway, as I was watching the cicadas crawl up Anna's arm with a mixture of horror and awe, I realized that the next time the cicadas come our way, Anna will be in college--or possibly have even graduated. I can't think or write these words without aching for my Anna, who is growing faster than I realized.

In light of the circumstances, I've come to think of parenting in a fresh way, one that seems to trim the task down a bit and bring more delight to the process. This summer, I'm not in the business of making perfect, successful, savvy girls. My job is simpler than that--for now, at least, I'm gardening--planting memories in the fertile soil of their hearts. I'm hoping that the lovely memories will outweigh the not-so-lovely ones which will inevitably slip in.

As Dostoevsky wrote in the Karamazov Brothers:

"Remember that nothing is nobler, stronger, more vital, or more useful in future life than some happy memory, especially one from your family home. A lot is said about upbringing, but the very best upbringing, perhaps, is some lovely, holy memory preserved from one's childhood. If a man carries many such memories with him, they will keep him safe throughout his life. And even if only one such memory stays in our hearts, it may prove to be our salvation one day.

Speaking of memories, Anna may have relished the cicadas at that party, but Natalie was all about the frosting . . .