Sleeping Outside

sleeping bag funWhen my big sister Nan and I were simple kids living in a house thick with ancient relatives, we yearned for that rare occasion when we got to sleep outside.

We never did that in our own yard, so small it could hardly fit its in-ground garbage can and its creaky old clothesline. But oh when we went to visit our cousins in West Roxbury!

There were no trolley cars screeching past the end of their street. There were no alleys between brick buildings like the one we had with its revolving store of interesting things, bits of brightly colored glass, a discarded lady’s scarf, and once, for a thrilling six-week period, the remains of a small dead animal, flat as an envelope.

Their neighborhood felt like the neighborhood we saw on Leave it to Beaver. Their mom wore an actual apron. They had a real screened-in porch, and we could roller skate as much as we liked along smooth sidewalks.

And best of all I would get to “camp out.” Nan would do other, older things with the other, older cousins but I was always matched with cousin Mary Lou, who was closest to me in age, and boy did Mary Lou know how to have fun. For our big campouts she would fashion a little tent for us, expertly pounding its pegs into the grass. She would produce real sleeping bags, the old-fashioned kind, made of cotton and lined with plaid flannel.

There, as evening gathered in, we would feast gloriously on Franco American spaghetti heated up over small cans of Sterno and lie back in that soft grass, telling ghost stories and waiting for the stars

It was heaven. And I believe I remember it today because last week I came upon a passage I had copied out just 20 years ago from T.H. White’s wonderful bThe Once and Future King. 

The passage goes like this:

The boy slept well in a woodland nest when he laid himself down, in that kind of thin but refreshing sleep, which people have when they begin to lie out-of-doors.

At first he only dipped below the surface of sleep and skimmed along like a salmon in shallow water so close to the surface that he fancied himself in air. He saw himself awake when he was already asleep.

He saw the stars above his face, whirling on their silent and sleepless axis and the leaves of the trees rustling against them, and he heard small changes in the grass. These little noises the footsteps and soft-fringed wing beats and stealthy bellies drawn over the grass blades or rattling against the bracken at first frightened but interested him so that he no longer cared to see what they were but trusted them to be themselves, and finally left them all together as he swam down deeper and deeper, nuzzling into the scented turf, into the unending waters under the earth.

Perhaps it was the part about trust that moved me to copy this out in the summer of ’96. Anyway, it’s the part that moves me now. And tonight when the darkness gathers, I want to look up at the still-swollen moon and those steady stars and remember to trust more; to trust, as Lincoln said in his farewell to the people in Springfield, that all may yet be well.    

sleeping in the woods (1)


Today is the Day

Safe through the storm is how we  prayed we would come, though it was hard to believe we would when the wind was whipping round the house like filaments of cotton candy around the paper cone.

Yikes! is all I can say.

Last year it was snow.

This is year it was rain AND snow.

Both years it was wind like you wouldn’t believe.

48 hours ago got a call from my daughter Carrie who lives 20 miles from here asking if her little family of five could come shelter at the old place where she grew up – here with us, along with their Halloween costumes just in case.

And now that great day is here.

Officials are still calculating the damage, in numbers of dollars so high I personally can’t conceive of them. Most of us can’t, is my belief , but especially those of us who remember Green Stamps, and the way you could once buy a perfectly nice dress at a good department store for just $12.

I feel a little like someone falling fast down a covered slide . Plummeting in the dark, if you can picture it. And with this painful election going on and on I feel even more dread at what bitterness may lie ahead for us.

But then I think of Jack O’Lantern mushrooms, which gather with their brethren in the woods and all by themselves in the quiet dark spring forth one day and glow like a bank of votive candles in a church.

I’m taking my comfort from them and keeping my own flame alive. I am believing, as Lincoln said in bidding farewell to the people of Springfield, that all may yet be well.

The Love That Brought Us Here

14 years ago my husband’s mother had to be put in a nursing home due to the diminished mental capacities brought on by Alzheimer’s. There she suffered mightily until one Friday in November when she took a turn for the worse. We all hurried to her bedside. When a cart of food and beverages was wheeled in for us we got the message loud and clear: she was in her final hours.

I called our church office and told the story to the woman who picked up the phone. I did this automatically, even though our mother was not a member of our church but only an occasional visitor. Chokingly I described what her breathing was like and the way, from time to time, her eyes would open and she would look at us so pleadingly. “I know it’s Skip’s day off but I was hoping someone could help us…” I started to say.

“Oh for heaven’s sake!” the kind woman interrupted me. “Let me call him right now!”

Skip, this senior pastor of ours, was at the lumber yard at the time, elbow-deep in a construction project. Still, less than 30 minute later he walked through the door in workshirt and jeans. He saw right away how frightened we all looked.

He asked if there was anything we would like to say to this small suffering woman so dear to us all but somehow none of us could speak, paralyzed as we were by sorrow and dread.

“Well why don’t we take hands and circle her bed,” he said quietly, and so we did that.

Then he called her by her name and said something about how the love that had brought her here was the love to which she was now returning.  I can’t give you the exact words – I still have around those moments a strange sort of amnesia – but in some few hours more she did in fact return to the love that brought her here if that is indeed what we do at life’s end.

So that’s what this church of ours is like that later married our daughter and our brother to their two beloved partners, a full year before same-sex marriage became legal in our state. This church says God is still speaking and so we must not place a period where God has placed a comma. Maybe you’ll take a minute to watch this photo montage and ponder for yourself all the hope contained in a humble punctuation mark.

Hope Springs Eternal

On a gentler, more hopeful note on this the first full day of Spring how about some Kurt Vonnegut. Herewith about the loveliest ‘vision’ in all of literature, belonging to protagonist Billy Pilgrim in the fourth chapter of Slaughterhouse Five:

American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses, took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.

The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.

When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.

The American fliers turned in their uniforms, became high school kids. And Hitler turned into a baby. Everybody turned into a baby, and all humanity, without exception, conspired biologically to produce two perfect people named Adam and Eve.

Happy spring Kurt. I hope they love you as much in Heaven as we loved you here on earth.

What Kids See

The day before last you’d have had to tunnel under your house to feel as low as I did: The dead and the little children of the dead and babies cradled in their coffined mothers’ arms, gad!  If you missed that post it’s right here. But today, with Nature shining an  innocent sun down on us here in Boston even as She kicks the states to the south square in the pants, I feel hopeful – maybe because of this great picture I found yesterday.

These are the children whose young mother died when the little one was still in her high chair. That’s Julia, in the middle there, who turned out to be about the funniest person who ever lived. And look how happy Robert and James seem. Only my mom still looks sad who was the world’s second funniest person and always said she photographed badly anyway with what she called her ‘rotten-down-turning mouth.’

But look at the mischief in little Julia’s face!  And I know James ‘came back’ pretty quick because the Christmas after the death he gaily signed his letter to Santa, “James Sullivan, a fat six-year-old boy,”  (this in an era when it was considered safer to have some extra flesh. )

So I ask you: what can children see that the rest of us can’t? And how can we acquire vision like theirs?